Rwanda has launched the world's first national drone delivery system, which will be used to deliver blood to patients in remote areas of the country. The drones, manufactured by California robotics company Zipline, will begin delivering blood to 21 transfusing facilities in the western part of Rwanda, where poor roads and healthcare infrastructure have often made it difficult to reach patients in need. Rwandan President Paul Kagame will formally announce the program at a ceremony in Kigali on Friday.
Zipline announced its partnership with the Rwandan government earlier this year, and has spent the last several months testing its launch system at a distribution center in the Muhanga region. The distribution center houses 15 custom-built drones, known as "Zips," which can fly up to 150 kilometers, round-trip, and carry up to 1.5 kilograms of blood. Hospitals can order blood via text message and have it parachuted to their location in 15 minutes, on average, eliminating the need for onboard refrigeration or insulation.
"each delivery is potentially saving a human life."
Drone delivery systems have been slow to take off in the US, but the Rwandan government has fully embraced the technology. The country formalized drone regulations earlier this year, and is currently building a drone airport that is scheduled for completion in 2020. The hope is that Zipline's system can help reach people in desperate need of transfusions, including mothers suffering from postpartum hemorrhaging, which is the leading cause of maternal mortality worldwide.
"I think a lot of people are very cynical in terms of drone delivery because it’s just not practical," says Zipline CEO Keller Rinaudo, in part because standard quadcopters can fly for a limited range. But with Zipline's fleet, he says, "you can do hundreds of deliveries a day, where each delivery is potentially saving a human life."
In a Skype video chat from Zipline's distribution center on Thursday morning, Rinaudo also displayed the company's new recovery system, which he says was "inspired by aircraft carriers and bouncy castles." The system consists of a long wire held by two poles, with a large pad — manufactured by a bouncy castle company — positioned a few meters away. The system communicates with an incoming drone to adjust the angle of the poles so that the cord latches on to a hook dangling from the end of the vehicle. Once attached, the drone is corralled by the cord and gently dropped on to the pad. Once the craft has landed, Zipline's team can swap out its battery and load it with blood for a new delivery within "four to five minutes," Rinaudo says.
Zipline began its first blood deliveries this week, and plans to expand to eastern Rwanda by early next year. Rinaudo says deliveries in western Rwanda will reach about 7 million people, covering an area of around 7,000 square miles. Zipline has also partnered with UPS and GAVI, the Bill Gates-backed vaccine fund, to explore how the system could be used to deliver vaccines and other medicines.
Zipline announced in August that it will begin delivering blood and medicine to remote and rural areas in Maryland, Nevada, and Washington, under a program that it hopes to launch in 2017. (Companies like Matternet and Flirtey have similar ambitions in the US.) Rinaudo says the company is also looking to expand to other countries across East Africa, and he expects his fleet of drones to deliver much more than blood in the years to come.
"The idea that you would only use this to deliver blood, it’d be like saying you’re going to build highways for the country of Rwanda and only let hot pink cars drive on it," Rinaudo says. "This is infrastructure, and you can use it for all kinds of different things, some of which we can predict and some of which we can’t."