Life-Saving Deliveries Will Get Drones Flying the Skies

Delivery drones are real and they’re operating on a national level, but they’re not dropping off impulse purchases, and some of the most important applications are not in the United States. Zipline, a Bay Area startup, inked a deal with the government of Rwanda in 2016 and now uses small, autonomous planes to deliver medical supplies, and in particular blood, to rural communities across the African country.

“It’s a pretty cool paradigm shift for people who think all technological revolution is going on in US, and it’ll trickle down to poor countries,” says Zipline CEO, Keller Rinaudo, presenting his vision for drone deliveries on stage at the WIRED25 summit in San Francisco on Monday. “This is the opposite of that.”

Amazon created an internet-wide buzz when it announced it wanted to start delivering online shopping via drone, in a 60 Minutes interview in 2013. It’s one of many companies now trying to make click-to-drone deliveries a reality, and between them all, they’ve demonstrated drops of everything from Slurpees to automatic defibrillators for patients who seem to be having a heart attack, as parts of limited tests sanctioned by the FAA in the US.

Rinaudo is convinced that it’s the latter type of life saving delivery that will help make drones mainstream and acceptable. He says it’s a lot easier for regulators to understand the need for new frameworks that allow innovations like drones, when every flight could potentially save a life.

“It would have been harder if we said we were delivering burritos, I think.”

In Rwanda, Zipline launches from a base in the capital Kigali to bypass muddy, impassable roads and zip over mountains that would make the trek by truck too long, even in the best weather.

When a clinic worker needs plasma or platelets, often for a transfusion for a woman after childbirth, they send a text message to Zipline’s mission control. A tech loads up the supplies into a disposable box with a folded paper parachute, and tucks that into the belly of a drone. The whole aircraft and payload delivery system is designed to be cheap to build and easy to fix. It has a strong but lightweight foam shell, like a bike helmet, and electrical components that snap in and out.

A catapult launches the plane from zero to 70 mph in under a second, and then it can fly up to 100 miles at 80 mph. At the far end, the drone gently drops the package onto a landing target about the size of a couple of parking spaces (Rinaudo showed a cellphone video of the drop, which earned him applause from the room), before returning to base, where a cable strung between two poles snags on the tail, and scoops the drone safely out of the air. Rinaudo says for the first seven days of operation, the service seems incredible to clinic workers, but on the eighth day, it becomes routine, and even mundane. “Doctors say ‘Of course we have drones, how else would you do it?’”

Zipline already handles 30 percent of Rwanda’s demand for blood for emergency transfusions, but Rinaudo told the WIRED25 audience that the company has just signed an agreement for a second distribution center in the country, to allow it to reach the entire population.

It is also now working with Ghana on a similar national drone delivery system. In the US, it’s planning a pilot project in North Carolina, to deliver essential medical supplies, which it hopes to have up and running early 2019. Because as Rinaudo pointed out, the issue of remote communities needing blood or drugs in a hurry, is one that most countries could use some help with.

More Great WIRED Stories