Launched in October 2016, the drone delivery project, a partnership between the Government of Rwanda and the California based robotics company, Zipline, Inc. made Rwanda the first country in the world to use the drone technology at the service of saving lives. Photo by: Sarah Farhat / World Bank / CC BY-NC-ND

DAVOS, Switzerland — When the Rwandan government partnered with Zipline, the Silicon Valley company that delivers essential medical products by drone, it set an important example of how governments and companies can work together to leverage the power of technology to benefit society.

On Tuesday, the World Economic Forum announced at its annual meetings in Davos, Switzerland, that Rwanda will be the first country to adopt performance-based regulations for all drones. This means regulators can specify safety standards drones have to meet, but will then take their mission and operations into account, which could open the door for more operators, including those focused on global health, international development, and humanitarian response objectives.

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The partnership between WEF and Rwanda to co-design a policy framework will allow for partnerships like the one with Zipline, which has seen 3,000 deliveries to date, to scale up from small-scale pilots to larger programs with broader impacts.

And it could serve as a model for other countries finding their own way on a key theme at this year’s annual meetings: agile governance of emerging technologies.

“Building on the success of Zipline’s blood delivery technology, we are working to nurture a drone industry,” said Jean de Dieu Rurangirwa, Rwanda’s minister of information technology and communication and a participant at this week’s WEF meetings, in a press release provided to Devex ahead of the launch of the partnership. “As we look to the future, we will continue to put in place the infrastructure and policy frameworks that accelerate the adoption of emerging technologies to transform people’s lives.”

While medical supply chains have really been the first implementations of drone delivery to take hold, in Rwanda and elsewhere, the possibilities extend from advancing internet access, to linking crops from remote farms to international markets, to providing humanitarian access to areas that would otherwise be off limits.

“I’m passionate about this technology because I think it has the ability to connect the disconnected and empower the disempowered,” said Timothy Reuter, who leads the World Economic Forum’s work on developing regulatory frameworks and airspace management practices to help civil drones realize their full potential. “This is a radical democratization of air space. It used to be only wealthy governments or corporations could collect data from the sky or move goods through the sky. Now you’re empowering both less wealthy governments and new entrepreneurs to take advantage of the sky as a resource.”

The partnership between Rwanda and the World Economic Forum is managed by the Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, a self-described “do tank” that opened in San Francisco in March 2017. So far, Rwanda and Japan have been the center’s two government partners, but on Tuesday the center announced that Denmark, Bahrain, and the Inter-American Development Bank would join them in collaboration agreements. When governments become partners, they send fellows, or “secondees” as the World Economic Forum calls them, to San Francisco to work with the center on new pilot projects.

“The whole point of the center is co-designing policy and governance frameworks and prototyping, testing, and iterating, not just putting out interesting white papers and hosting convenings,” Zvika Krieger, who is part of the center’s leadership team, told Devex.

He said the center uses 10 metrics to evaluate partners, including a track record of piloting innovative policies, a strategic prioritization of emerging technology, and an ability to influence other countries in the region. Rwanda has been a focus so far, but when the center announced its new government partners on Tuesday, it also announced affiliate centers that will open in India, Japan, and the United Arab Emirates, each focused on different emerging technologies.  

“The government of Rwanda’s leadership in co-designing agile policy frameworks around the use of drones could be a model for other countries that want to accelerate adoption of this game-changing technology,” Murat Sonmez, head of the Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, said in the press release. The partnership indicates how developing countries, whose regulatory environments tend to be less robust than their developed country counterparts, can be the some of the best places to test how emerging technologies can benefit society.

“In a lot of the countries we work in, governments have fewer restrictions and are more willing to work with partners, and that shows based on where these programs are taking off,” said Erica Kochi, an innovation lead at the United Nations Children’s Fund, which worked with Malawi to launch Africa’s first humanitarian drone testing corridor. “But I think there are obviously still some major challenges. One of the things is the benefits are not yet fully understood because so few drone programs are at scale. Other challenges have to do with cost, regulation, and capacity on the ground, as well issues with data ethics, privacy, and operational safety.”

East Africa is becoming a hub for innovation in drones — from the Malawi example to Zipline, which has expanded from Rwanda to Tanzania and Uganda, where coffee farmers are using drones to look for pests. The U.S. Agency for International Development’s Center for Accelerating Innovation and Impact released a report on “unmanned aerial vehicles” in global health. It features a timeline on the history of UAVs in the sector, beginning with the delivery of medicine and other supplies in the Dominican Republic and Haiti in January 2013 to the Malawi corridor.

“As UAV innovators continue pushing the bounds of technology, a range of additional stakeholders will also need to be engaged to support the development of a broader ecosystem,” the report reads. “The automobile industry is a helpful analogue to show the key contributions of varying stakeholders in order to optimize the industry’s impact and reach: automakers continue to innovate as they manufacture cars, highway authorities or private sector players build and maintain roads, and governments play an important role in ensuring traffic safety.”

While the Malawi corridor is important, ultimately it is a sandbox, an isolated testing environment, said Reuter. What makes the partnership with Rwanda so significant is that it is the first national government to implement unmanned traffic management as a key enabler to operating drones at scale.

“The current approach to aviation and drone regulation is to tell people you have to use this kind of equipment, which was probably used decades ago, and can only conduct these kinds of operations,” Reuter told Devex on Monday in Davos. “I would like to see more countries capturing the full value chain of drones both from developing the technology, to launching the companies, to implementing the use cases,” Reuter said.

Reuter is among the Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution’s experts in emerging technologies, including artificial intelligence and machine learning, the internet of things and connected devices, and blockchain and distributed ledger technology. When he started with the forum, he traveled with the Rwandan secondee to the country to get a sense of the drone ecosystem there, starting conversations that continued in Davos this week with President Paul Kagame and Rwandan government ministers. The country was interested in building on its work with Zipline, and already in the process of writing new regulations for drones, but they became interested in partnering with WEF both for their technical expertise and for their connections with a global network.

Drones appear in several places on the World Economic Forum agenda in Davos. On Tuesday, Kochi of UNICEF joined Reuter and Yvonne Wassenaar, CEO of Airware — a San Francisco-based company that develops commercial drone solutions — in a session on “Governing Advanced Technologies: Drones for All.” On Wednesday, Zipline CEO Keller Rinaudo will join a conversation moderated by Habitat for Humanity CEO Jonathan Reckford called “Disaster Resilience in Infrastructure.” On Thursday, Reuter will introduce a panel, also featuring Wassenaar, “From Flying Cars to Drone Delivery,” which asks how technologies and policies can maximize efficiency, lower costs, and enable last mile solutions, all while mitigating risks.

Update, Jan. 23: This story was amended to clarify the list of new partners with WEF’s Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which was incorrectly stated in a press release.

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About the author

  • Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Catherine also works for the Solutions Journalism Network, a non profit that trains and connects reporters to cover responses to problems.