Last month in Rwanda, a young woman started bleeding after giving birth by C-section. Try as they might, her doctors couldn’t stop it. They’d already transfused the two units of matching blood that they had on-hand. They could have called the national blood bank in the capital of Kigali to request more, but ordering it, and sending it the 25 miles over mountainous roads to the hospital would take up to four hours. The woman didn’t have that kind of time.
Desperate, the doctors called a distribution center near Kigali, where clinic workers and a flight crew loaded a series of small, unmanned aircraft with the needed supplies and launched them into the sky. Within 45 minutes, they dispatched seven units of red blood cells, four units of plasma, and two units of platelets, more than circulates through the entire human body.
Each drone needed just 15 minutes to reach the hospital, where it dropped its payload on a pre-determined landing zone. Doctors grabbed the supplies and used them to stabilize the 24-year-old patient.
Delivering medical deliveries by drone has become almost routine in Rwanda since the California startup Zipline arrived in October. “We do this every day,” says company founder and CEO Keller Rinaudo. Although his company’s hardware helped save that woman’s life, he gives all the credit to the team, recruited from the surrounding community, at the distribution center. “That’s not just her life,” he says, “that’s a kid who has a mom.”
Now, Zipline is expanding into neighboring Tanzania, establishing the world’s largest national drone delivery service. The Tanzanian government wants to make as many as 2,000 daily deliveries from four distribution centers serving an area roughly the size of Texas and Louisiana.
Zipline has performed about 1,400 deliveries in Rwanda, about a quarter of them in emergencies. Its drones have clocked 60,000 , delivering blood to areas ground vehicles can’t reach quickly, or at all during the rainy season that turns roads to mud.
For the new service, Zipline plans to fly upgraded versions of its fixed-wing drones, which have a 6-foot wingspan and can cruise at 70 mph. Each can carry 3 pounds of cargo (one unit of blood weighs roughly 1.2 pounds), and the batteries can make a round trip of 100 miles. Folded wax paper parachutes and cardboard cargo bays make the drones both durable and cheap to operate and repair. “The new vehicle is highly modular,” says Rinaudo. “If a sensor is giving weird readings, it’s super fast to replace that.”
Tanzania’s first distribution center is slated for Dodoma, the capital, and will be up and running early next year. Three more will follow, creating a network to serve the nation’s 55 million citizens. That’s a huge expansion over the operation in Rwanda, a much smaller country with a population of just 12 million. Each center will run a fleet of 30 drones, enough for 500 deliveries daily. In addition to blood, they’ll carry emergency vaccines, HIV medications, and supplies like IV tubes, to 5,640 public health facilities.
Zipline makes a habit of recruiting and training local engineers, health workers, and flight operators. As was the case in Rwanda, Rinaudo knows his team will have to work with local communities to emphasize the aircraft perform humanitarian, not military or surveillance, work.
The drones will supplement the government’s sporadic overland deliveries. “That mission can be a challenge during emergencies, times of unexpected demand, bad weather, or for small but critical orders,” Laurean Bwanakunu, director general of the country’s medical stores department, said in a statement. “Using drones for just-in-time deliveries will allow us to provide health facilities with complete access to vital medical products no matter the circumstance.”
While Zipline might expand further in Africa, Rinaudo believes its services could be useful globally. “Rural healthcare is a huge problem in the US too,” he says.
But launching in America requires wrangling with restrictive regulations that have limited drone deliveries to the occasional test, like 7-Eleven’s Slurpee shipment in Reno, Nevada, or Flirtey’s drug dropoff in Virginia. Widespread operation requires approval from the FAA, which worries about keeping drones away from conventional aircraft.
But remote areas of the country—rural Native American reservations, for example—far from hospitals, could certainly benefit from a Zipline-like service. And from there, it’s not such a big leap to launching a service to get you that Amazon package you so desperately need.