The world’s supposed first drone delivery program is bringing blood to remote Rwandan clinics


Zipline partnered with UPS and Gavi to launch the program.

Yesterday, Rwanda officially opened its first drone delivery program.

Now blood and plasma will be flown by autonomous drones to clinics in the rural western part of the country, where poor road conditions often delay time-critical delivery of medical supplies for hours or even days.

With drones, delivery time is reduced to minutes.

Piloted by the California-based drone startup Zipline — in partnership with the UPS Foundation, the shipping giant’s charitable arm, and Gavi, a vaccine fund backed by Bill Gates — the Rwandan government is paying for the service, which costs about the same as the motorbike blood deliveries the country relies on today. Zipline itself is a private company, counting Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and Yahoo founder Jerry Yang among its top investors.

Once the program is in full swing in a few weeks, Rwanda plans to fly between 50 and 150 drones a day delivering blood and plasma to 21 clinics. Postpartum hemorrhaging is the primary cause of death for new mothers in Rwanda, but clinics often don’t have the resources to keep blood products, which require reliable storage facilities at specific temperatures. And during the country’s long rainy season, terrestrial delivery isn’t always an option.


Zipline

To request a blood drop-off, health care workers send a text message, and 30 minutes later a drone arrives. Zipline’s drones don’t land at the medical centers, but rather drop packages via disposable parachutes at the clinics’ receiving area. Not landing or ever getting close to people during its trip makes flying the drones over populated areas much safer. They only touch ground at one designated takeoff center, located in the central Muhanga region of the country.

Zipline’s drones fly at around 40 miles per hour and can travel about 90 miles round trip before needing to recharge.


Zipline

UPS helped ship the Zipline drones and supplies to Rwanda, and the delivery giant’s foundation donated $1.1 million to the project, but beyond these efforts, UPS’s ongoing involvement appears slim. The company’s expertise in global delivery, though, could help expand the program to other countries in the future.

UPS has good reason to partner with the humanitarian drone effort. Amazon is rapidly prepping its own drone program and UPS needs to get in on the autonomous aerial delivery game, too.

Last month, UPS completed a successful test flight of medical supplies to an island off the coast of Massachusetts, but that’s minor compared to what Amazon has done: The e-commerce behemoth opened multiple test sites for its delivery drones in Canada and the U.K.

UPS is in a different boat. They have a large, unionized workforce of drivers who probably aren’t too excited about the prospect of being replaced by drones. But if UPS doesn’t start taking autonomous aerial delivery more seriously, the world’s largest shipping company may find itself stuck in the mud.

Zipline is already in talks with U.S. policymakers about getting a waiver to fly a drone out of line of site for time-critical medical deliveries in rural parts of the country and to Native American reservations. One drone company, Flirtey, completed an FAA-approved flight last year ferrying medical supplies to rural Virginia.

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