A Silicon Valley startup is using drones to deliver medicine and blood to patients in Rwanda, and it plans to expand to other countries by the end of the year. The company, Zipline International, announced this week that it will begin flying its drones in Rwanda in July, under a partnership with the government. The unpiloted autonomous vehicles will ferry supplies to hospitals and health centers across the tiny East African nation, forming what Zipline describes as the world’s first drone delivery system to operate at a national scale.
Rwanda is one of the world’s poorest countries, and infant mortality rates remain high. Deaths from HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria have plummeted over the past decade, as the government invested heavily in its healthcare system, though delivering drugs and medical supplies in the “land of a thousand hills” still poses major problems.
“To put it into perspective, when you don’t have paved roads, sometimes it’s impossible to get out to these hospitals and health clinics, and sometimes it’s just difficult,” Keller Rinaudo, Zipline CEO, said in an interview Monday. “But it’s always unpredictable and unreliable.”
With Zipline’s system, hospitals will be able to order blood or medicine via text message, and have it delivered within minutes by one of the company’s custom-built drones, called "Zips." Each electric-powered Zip weighs about 22 pounds, can carry around three pounds of medicine, and can travel for more than 75 miles on a single battery charge. The planes use GPS and Rwanda’s cellular network to navigate, and deliver blood or medicine in cardboard boxes that are dropped with a parachute from low altitudes. The company says its network can deliver packages within 30 minutes, eliminating the need for onboard insulation or refrigeration, and the Zips are durable enough to withstand rain and wind.
Zipline was founded in 2014, and has funding from venture capital firms like Sequoia Partners and Google Ventures, as well as investors including Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. Under its partnership with the Rwandan government, the company’s initial fleet of 15 drones will service about half of the country, before expanding to the rest of Rwanda by early next year. Zipline’s planes were developed by engineers who had previously worked at organizations like Boeing, SpaceX, and NASA.
Drone delivery has yet to take off in the US due to complex federal regulations, but the Rwandan government has embraced the technology as a way to bolster health systems and spur economic growth. Work is already underway on a network of drone airports that is due for completion in 2020, and the government approved regulations on drones earlier this year.
Other startups have sought to develop similar systems, including Matternet, which is working to deliver HIV testing kits with drones, and Flirtey, which delivered drugs to a medical center in rural Virginia last year — the first FAA-approved delivery of its kind.
Rinaudo says Zipline’s system could be expanded to deliver vaccines, anti-venom, or other medical supplies, and he hopes to incorporate home deliveries, as well. He says the company will "certainly" expand to countries outside of Rwanda by the end of this year, and it’s targeting both emerging and developed economies alike. A US launch isn’t on the immediate horizon, due to regulatory hurdles, though Rinaudo thinks it’s only a matter of time before the market opens up.
"I think it’s basically inevitable that showing that this can be done safely and reliably, and that it can save thousands of lives, will rapidly increase the adoption of this kind of technology in the US," Rinaudo says.