Imagine for one second that a place you call home is located in one of Rwanda’s difficult-to-reach villages or towns, and disaster has struck; ten minutes ago, while you were busy ploughing your field in preparation of the rainy season, somehow one of the tools you were using slipped and landed straight on your foot.
You immediately start bleeding heavily and all hell breaks loose. Your nearest hospital is 15 kilometres away, and since you would be hard-pressed to walk there due to relentless pain and bleeding, you summon your neighbour to drive you to the hospital and he duly obliges.
After arriving at the hospital, the on duty doctor assesses your injury and concludes that you need urgent blood transfusion to replace blood lost during your nightmare.
But, to make matters worse, there is no more blood available at that particular hospital – two hours earlier, the last batch was allocated to a new mother who had complications during childbirth.
You are stuck and there is little your doctor can do. As a last resort, however, your doctor decides to call a nearby hospital to check whether they have any surplus blood.
By virtue of luck, the hospital confirms that they have blood available, but they also emphasise that due to torrential rainfall the night before, the already muddy road to be used to transport the blood batch will be even trickier to negotiate with.
They kindly inform your doctor that it may take up to three hours to get the blood to the patient. Your doctor shares this with you, and knowing that there is little you can do, you both decide to accept the offer and begin the anxious waiting game.
The delay could be fatal.
To you, this may sound a little imaginary, and maybe it is; however, you would be mistaken to assume that a situation like the one mentioned above is unlikely to happen to someone living in rural Rwanda.
You see, although Rwanda is a country blessed with so many hills, lakes, and rivers, a landscape such as ours also presents geographical challenges that require large-scale infrastructure by way of reliable roads, bridges, and airports.
And, even though we would rather have such infrastructure in place, the truth of the matter is that at this very moment in time, we cannot afford them, at least at the speed necessary. So what are the alternatives–essentially, what can we do to speed up the urgent delivery of blood to our hospitals in out-of-the-way areas, for instance?
Lord Norman Foster thinks he has the answer, and it is the introduction of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, commonly referred to as drones! The renowned British architect, who is also the man behind worldwide iconic buildings such as the Expo MRT Station in Singapore, Hearst Tower in New York City, Reichstag – the new German Parliament, and two iconic buildings in London – the Gherkin and City Hal, has launched proposals for a Droneport project and chosen Rwanda as a test bed.
Lord Foster, in partnership with Afrotech, and Ecole Polytechnique Fedelerale de Lausanne, believes that the project will help save lives and build economies.
The project partners believe, and I concur, that since Africa faces infrastructure challenges, in particular, access to reliable roads, drones could be used to bypass these challenges.
According to Foster + Partners, the specialist drones would have the capacity to carry blood and medical supplies over 100 kilometres at minimal cost, thereby providing “affordable alternative that can complement road-based deliveries,” a statement by Foster + Partners read in part.
In addition, Lord Foster believes that since the gap between Africa’s population and infrastructural growth is increasing exponentially, “the dearth of terrestrial infrastructure has a direct impact on the ability to deliver life-giving supplies, indeed where something as basic as blood is not always available for timely treatment.”
This, of course, would have dramatically reduced the amount of time our imaginary patient would have had to wait for blood to be transported to his remote hospital, and in essence, proving as the difference between survival and death.
But, while we wait for the Droneport pilot project to be launched next year, how else could we utilise drones for development purposes? In countries such as Japan, drones have revolutionised large-scale agriculture.
For instance, as far back as 1983, Yamaha began to manufacture drone helicopters to be used by farmers as a tool to collect farm information to help make better decisions, inspect crops, monitor diseases, and eventually help in precision spraying of pesticides – a method that ultimately improved Japan’s agricultural production.
Notably, that is just the start; drones can also be used in law enforcement to monitor large crowds, and in search and rescue operations.
All of these benefits, of course, add to the fact that drones put no pilot at risk, can be used regardless of ground conditions, and unlike heavy agricultural vehicles such as tractors, they do not cause soil compaction.
As can be seen, there is no denying that the introduction of drones can add to the many solutions we have available to tackle infrastructure challenges in Rwanda.
However, in view of our limited resources and the urgent need to ensure good health to our citizens, the proposal for the Droneport could add significantly to the ongoing efforts.
We just need to be able to strike an appropriate regulatory balance that facilitates the use of drones for constructive purposes but prevents them from being used for the wrong reasons.