meant additional trips—sometimes resulting in life-threatening
delays. Now, a Kabgayi lab technician simply taps out an order
on a smartphone and Zipline’s distribution center, located five
kilometers from the hospital, will have a drone there within 15
minutes. “Before, it was a serious problem to have blood when
we needed it,” says Espoir Kajibwami, a surgeon who served as
Kabgayi’s medical director until February. In emergency cases,
he says, the hospital would often send the patient to the national
referral hospital in Kigali rather than wait for the blood to arrive.
Zipline’s blood deliveries come at a time of great activity in
the world of drone-enabled commerce. Last December, three
years after announcing its much-publicized Prime Air service,
Amazon conducted its first commercial drone delivery, to a farmhouse in rural England. The month before, the convenience-store chain 7-Eleven completed 77 on-demand drone deliveries
of pizza, Slurpees, and over-the-counter medicines to customers
in Reno, Nevada. UPS, which has helped finance Zipline’s operations through a $1.1 million grant from its charitable foundation,
delivered a package in February with a drone launched from
the top of one of its signature brown trucks. Flirtey, the drone
maker behind the 7-Eleven pilot, has also tested the delivery of
medicines in understocked parts of Appalachia. Another U.S.
firm, Matternet, has conducted test flights in collaboration with
UNICEF to deliver infant HIV test kits in Malawi.
Yet Zipline, which uses fixed-wing drones that have a greater
range and are more resilient in bad weather than the more common multicopter models, is the first in the world to offer regular
delivery of emergency medical products.
Founded in 2011 under the name Romotive, the company
first gained notoriety as the maker of Romo, an iPhone-powered
robotic pet, before CEO Keller Rinaudo decided to seek a product that would have a greater social impact. Soon he and Zipline
cofounders William Hetzler and Keenan Wyrobek were scouring
the developing world to learn how drone-based logistics could
help save lives.
can hear the drone before it’s visible, whining like a mosquito
above the hillside grounds of Rwanda’s Kabgayi District Hospi-
tal. Emerging through a patch of fog, roughly 100 feet in the air,
the small plane quickly disappears again, circling in an oblong
pattern as it descends toward an altitude low enough to make
its drop. After a period of silence, it’s suddenly back, swooping
over the roof of Kabgayi’s accident ward to drop its payload on
the driveway with a thud. On the ground lies a red cardboard
container, roughly the size of a shoebox, attached to a parachute
made of wax paper and biodegradable tape. The contraption may
resemble a children’s art project, but its contents are lifesaving.
Packed tightly inside are two units of human blood, which will
probably soon be used for transfusions during surgeries or complicated childbirths, or to treat young victims of malaria.
The plastic sachets of blood are among the first commercial
products ever delivered by drone, part of a partnership between
the Rwandan government and the Silicon Valley–based robotics
firm Zipline, which began introducing the blood drops at Kabgayi
in late 2016. The service, which is now delivering to seven of 21
planned facilities, is still in its infancy. Yet it has already had
an impact. In the past, hospital staff would make three drives
per week to procure blood products in the capital, Kigali, 60
kilometers away, a three- to four-hour round trip. Emergencies
A Zipline technician uses a catapult
mechanism to launch a drone carrying blood
sachets toward Kabgayi Hospital. Once a
drone is over the hospital, its package drops
to the ground via parachute.