JUDY WOODRUFF: Now a pair of reports from
Africa. First, getting medical supplies quickly to
where they are needed can affect a life-or-death situation. As special correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro
reports from Rwanda, one company is using new technology to speed up deliveries. It’s part of our series Breakthrough. FRED DE SAM LAZARO: On the outskirts of Rwanda’s
capital, Kigali, is a new blood bank set up to serve distant rural areas where blood is
not always available and difficult to store. Throughout the day, a steady stream of orders
comes in by e-mail, text or phone. On a delivery vehicle or motorbike, this package
would take anywhere from 90 minutes to two hours to reach the hospital requesting it. This one will take about 15 minutes, a baby
step into a future of drone deliveries in health care. JUSTIN HAMILTON, Zipline International: We’re
doing something that’s never been done before in the history of the world. FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Justin Hamilton works
for a California-based start-up called Zipline. It has a contract with the government to deliver
blood and medications to rural hospitals. JUSTIN HAMILTON: Hospitals either don’t have
what they need, or they don’t need what they have, which means, if you stock too much medicine,
you have high levels of waste and spoilage in the system. FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Zipline now serves 21
rural health facilities, and just added a second base in Rwanda, allowing it to expand
delivery to 450 clinics and hospitals. JOSEPH NDAGIJIMANA, Zipline International:
Their current range is 80 kilometers, 80 kilometers radius. FRED DE SAM LAZARO: That’s about 50 miles. Joseph Ndagijimana is operations manager of
this base. JOSEPH NDAGIJIMANA: People here are like firefighters. They’re just waiting for a command from the
(INAUDIBLE) to start loading planes and get them flying. FRED DE SAM LAZARO: These battery-operated
drones are limited, a payload of under four pounds. And they cannot land. Deliveries must be made by parachute. But the company says its drops are accurate
within two parking spaces. The government says this drone delivery system
is part of a continuing effort to improve health care. In the 25 years since the genocide that killed
a 10th of Rwanda’s population, life expectancy increased from 48 to 64. Infant and maternal mortality have dropped
more than two-thirds, but they remain a huge challenge, says Health Minister Diane Gashumba. DR. DIANE GASHUMBA, Rwandan Health Minister: Postpartum
hemorrhage is the first killer, the first cause of death for women. By reducing the time, you save lives. FRED DE SAM LAZARO: So far, there’s been no
data on how many lives have been saved since drones began operating in 2016, and officials
with the company and government are tight-lipped on how much Zipline is being paid. DR. DIANE GASHUMBA: Saving lives, for us, it’s
priceless. FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Also priceless may be
what the government hopes this project does for Rwanda’s image. Rwanda is a small country, about the size
of Maryland. And it’s crowded. Its youthful population is estimated at around
12 million people. It has few natural resources, no traditional
industries. So it’s turned to brain power for the future,
trying to become the technology hub for the region. And being an early adopter of medical drones
is a feather in its cap, says Dr. Jean-Baptiste Mazarati, who heads the Biomedical Service
Department of Rwanda. DR. JEAN-BAPTISTE MAZARATI, Rwandan Biomedical
Service Department: When the Zipline company approached the government of Rwanda, it was
also fitting with what I can call the government ambition to see technology servicing people. FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Another dividend that’s
hard to measure is what drones are doing for young imaginations. JOSEPH NDAGIJIMANA: Before I was like maybe
15 years old, I hadn’t seen like a plane, like an actual plane, but, here, we have kids
take wires and try to imitate the size of the shape of a drone. FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Many countries, including
the U.S., with much heavier air traffic, have restricted drones to smaller-scale trials
until they develop more comprehensive safety regulations. Air traffic is light in Rwanda, and Zipline’s
controllers are always in touch with the country’s one international airport. And Dr. Mazarati hopes Rwanda can remain the
testing ground for future generations of this technology. DR. JEAN-BAPTISTE MAZARATI: If they could land,
that would be more transformative as anything we have ever seen. FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Competition is heating
up. Other companies are developing drones that
can land and pick up medical packages, like tissue samples, to deliver to lab facilities
not available in rural areas. Medical drone technology may be where aviation
was with the Wright Brothers, but it’s a giant leap forward for places like the Ruhango Hospital,
just 50 miles away, but a very long road journey from Kigali, says medical director Richard
Usabyineza. DR. RICHARD USABYINEZA, Director, Ruhango Provincial
Hospital: Before we started working with Zipline, it should take four to five hours to get blood
from Kigali. But since we started working with Zipline,
it’s now taking us 15 to 20 minutes. FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Having made the delivery,
the drone is guided back to home base, hooked by a zipline and prepared for its next trip. The government says its goal is to connect
all its people to essential medical supplies in 30 minutes. For the “PBS NewsHour,” this is Fred de Sam
Lazaro at the world’s first medical drone base in Muhanga, Rwanda. JUDY WOODRUFF: Fred’s reporting is a partnership
with the Under-Told Stories Project at University of St. Thomas in Minnesota.