The first company to start making drone deliveries at a commercial, high-volume scale won't be Amazon or DHL, but a startup sending medical supplies to remote hospitals in Rwanda to save lives.
In July, San Francisco-based Zipline plans to begin using its new drones to deliver blood from Rwandan blood banks to rural areas for emergency transfusions. Right now, the country struggles to get blood to remote clinics that might not have a reliable way to store it, and can't predict in advance which blood types they'll need.
"It's a really tough logistics challenge," says Keller Rinaudo, Zipline's cofounder. "So what we're trying to do is instead of them trying to predict what they need and having a large percentage of that blood go to waste, they can basically keep all of the blood centralized in two blood banks in the whole country. Then every single hospital and health center is in a 15- to 45-minute delivery of any blood transfusion regardless of the type of blood, all the time."
About half of all transfusions are used to save new mothers who hemorrhage after giving birth. Another 30% are used when children become severely anemic after a bout of malaria.
In the past, most companies attempting drone deliveries have tried to use off-the-shelf quadcopters. But that doesn't actually work. "The reality is that no one has created a system that can do more than one-off deliveries in perfect weather," says Rinaudo. A typical quadcopter also might only be able to fly for about 15 minutes, and can't travel much further than 10 kilometers.
The team realized they'd have to design an aircraft from scratch—something that could fly in the worst wind and rain, over longer distances, perfectly reliably. "Obviously, people don't wait for good weather to have their medical emergency," he says.
It also had to be safe enough that a government would be willing to allow it to fly. The drone they ended up with is a tiny airplane, rather than a quadcopter, and incorporates safety features that standard airliners might have. If one engine fails, the plane can still fly itself home. If one computer fails, the control can pass to another computer.
"This has been done at a commercial airliner scale," says Rinaudo. "We're basically figuring out, 'Okay, how do we do this using much more affordable components, at a much smaller scale, so it can actually service these kinds of use cases where human lives are at risk, but where you can't pay to send manned Cesna out there?'"
The system is easy enough to operate that when visitors come to the company's test site in California, they're given the instructions to set up the preflight check on their own. It doesn't take special skills to operate.
If it works, it may be the first truly reliable delivery drone to operate. In January, when DHL invited journalists to witness a drone flight, they had to cancel because of cold and snowy weather—despite the fact that the drone was designed for that type of weather. And that was just a single demonstration.
"This is going to be the first time that this kind of system is operating anywhere, delivering anything, where it's actually operating at a national scale and doing hundreds of deliveries a day," says Rinaudo.
The two distribution centers will each have around a dozen drones, each making as many as 150 flights to rural clinics.
The company decided to launch first in Rwanda in part because the government was so receptive to the idea. "They're one of . . . the countries in the world right now that's basically willing to try new things and make big investments in health care, education, and technology," he says. "They're really pushing the boundaries in terms of what's possible in a low-resource environment."
And, of course, it's a place where a solution is desperately needed to deliver medical supplies. "To put it in perspective, 90% of all roads in the continent of Africa wash out during the rainy season," he says. "So imagine trying to run a reliable logistics system when that is the reality. We've been trying to solve these problems for 50 years, using traditional forms of technology like trucks and motorcycles in environments that don't have the necessary infrastructure for those vehicles to work."
If the new system works, every one of Rwanda's 11 million citizens will be a short drone ride away from any essential medical product they need. The company thinks drones will soon seem like a normal part of life.
"The idea may look a little out there on its face," says Rinaudo. "But I actually think it won't take very long, very many deliveries, for health workers and hospitals and the population at large to say, 'Yeah, that's obviously how we should be solving that problem,' and for it to seem like that's how we've always done it."
Zipline has already been inundated by requests from others who want to use the technology for more mundane uses in the developed world, like delivering snacks. But the company isn't interested. "We're 100% focused on serving health care systems," he says. "Just because it's so obvious that that is where the need is the highest. Every delivery you make is potentially saving a human life."