They are best known for their use in warfare, while there have been reports of them flying far too close to aircraft in the UK.
Governments have on occasions reacted negatively to them: The US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA), for example, banned them from flying near stadiums, and in a host of countries across the world, what you can and can't do with them is strictly regulated.
Africa has been relatively slow to catch up: The South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) was the first to start clamping down in 2014. The jury remains out for many.
Yet, in Africa, drones, also known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), could have a serious leapfrogging effect when it comes to development. This is resulting in some African governments working with drone developers in order to figure out how best to employ the innovative technology to improve service provision.
The SACAA has already backtracked on its initial wariness by beginning to collaborate with the drone industry and come up with better formulated regulations on how it can develop. But other African countries are going further.
Across the world, more than 2 billion people lack access to vital medical products as a result of terrain and infrastructural gaps.
The problem is especially pronounced in the landlocked African country of Rwanda, where only 25% of the 4,700 kilometers of roads are paved, and the mountainous terrain makes transportation of blood and vaccines difficult.
Drones, however, may provide the answer. US-based company Zipline has been operating in Rwanda since 2017 after partnering with the government. Zipline drones fly over impassable mountains, delivering blood directly to remote clinics, which place orders via SMS, on request.
A Zipline drone ready for take-off.
Zipline drones now transport 20% of the nation’s blood supply outside the capital Kigali, with the company making 50-150 emergency flights a day to deliver lifesaving blood to clinics across the country.
CEO Keller Rinaudo says Zipline is the world's first national drone delivery service. "Our goal is to build an instant delivery service for the world," he said.
Its impact is being felt on the ground. Dr Nteziryayo Philippe, director general of Kabgayi Hospital in Muhanga District of Rwanda's Southern Province, remembers the trials and tribulations associated with procuring blood for transfusions in the days before the drone-based service was available. "Before Zipline, we had to go to Kigali, a long distance, to bring the blood," a journey that takes three hours, he said.
Zipline drones ready for action.
Now, however, it is easier for Dr Philippe and his staff. "We do the command online, and after 10 minutes the drone comes and delivers the blood. This helps us save the lives of our patients," he said.
Lives like Claudine Ndayishime, who had a complication during her C-section, and the hospital did not have her blood type in stock. Despite falling into a coma, she survived after blood was delivered by drone minutes later. And like the seven-month-old Noella Uwamwezi, who contracted malaria that led to severe anemia. Her hospital had run out of blood, but procured some immediately from Zipline.
Zipline's impact and potential to scale has made it attractive to investors. In 2016 the company raised US$25 million in Series B funding (taking its total raised capital to $43 million) to expand its operations across Africa.
This has already begun. Last year the company launched in Tanzania, a country where 68% of 55 million inhabitants live in rural areas. The country is 35 times the size of Rwanda, with only 8% of its roads paved.
Zipline staff with the secure blood packages transported by drone.
Through a partnership with the Tanzanian government, Zipline is launching more than 100 drones, capable of 2,000 flights daily between them, delivering blood and vaccines to more than 1,000 public health facilities. It is establishing four distribution across the country, with public health workers receiving their supplies in around 30 minutes.
Further expansion is in the pipeline in Africa. Rinaudo said its partnerships with the governments of Rwanda and Tanzania were crucial in its growth thus far.
"It's necessary to have the support of the national government and to have the vision and resources necessary to build a cutting-edge team developing a world-changing technology," he said.
The Rwandan government has a strong track record of using technology as a means of development, rolling out free WiFi across Kigali and offering incentive to entrepreneurs to set up shop in the East African country. When it comes to health, the country has helped pioneer a service that could have a major long-term impact on healthcare provision across Africa and elsewhere.
"Rwanda is a country that is committed to using technology in providing healthcare services. This project has been successful because the hospitals served no longer experience shortages of blood to save Rwandan lives," said Habarurema Gaspard, media relations and information officer at the Rwanda Biomedical Centre. "Thanks to Zipline, the lives of mothers bleeding while giving birth with postpartum hemorrhage, children with anemia, and malaria patients needing blood, are saved."
In the second part of this special Connecting Africa feature, we will look at how drones are being used in farming and in the treatment of HIV in children.
— Tom Jackson, co-founder of Disrupt Africa, special to Connecting Africa