Drones Saving Lives

Zipline drones deliver blood and medicine in Rwanda…and soon, around the world.


In Africa, more than 2.9 million children under the age of five die every year due to a lack of access to basic medical products. And up to 150,000 pregnancy-related deaths could be avoided if mothers had access to safe blood.

Many of these medical shortages occur because of an absence of infrastructure—85 percent of all roads are washed out—making travel by car or motorcycle impossible. Having seen these conditions first-hand, Keller Rinaudo, a robot pro, came up with an idea that would enable small, plane-like drones to deliver life-saving medicine via the airspace. Rinaudo, a Harvard grad and former professional rock climber, is the co-founder and CEO of Zipline, a Silicon Valley startup that is focused on building robots that will change the world. They are starting in Rwanda.

Through a partnership with the Rwanda government, Zipline is setting up a distribution center that will handle blood deliveries to 22 transfusing facilities, enabling a 30-minute delivery of blood or other medical products, which could save the life of a mom hemorrhaging after childbirth, for example.

“Rwanda keeps blood in four places in the country, in blood banks, and if a mom’s life is in danger at a facility then the physician is expected to get into a car and drive hours to a blood bank to pick up three units of blood,” Rinaudo said during a keynote presentation at the Wonderware Live conference. “It’s obvious why this is not an ideal solution, because six hours later when the doctor gets back the mom is either stable or dead. Our service is designed to completely rethink how that works and keep blood in one place and deliver it on-demand instantly in a way that doesn’t rely on any roads.”

The small robot airplane, called a Zip, is a 12 kg autonomous aircraft that travels at 100 km/hour carrying packages weighing 1.5 kg. It can make deliveries and then turn around and come home. The Zip can calculate speed of wind and autonomously figures how to drop the package so it hits the target.

The hardest part about the robot’s journey is the landing, as it has no landing gear. Instead, the engineers at Zipline rigged up a landing pad (manufactured by a company that makes bouncy houses for kids) that the drone flies toward and then catches a hook, like a plane does on an aircraft carrier, to fall gently onto the landing pad.

The Zip system is expected to save thousands of lives in the next year or two, and the company is planning to expand to other countries in the developing world in 2017.

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