Drone Company Zipline Assists Rwandan Hospitals With Aerial Blood Deliveries

The drone start-up which created Africa's first drone air-corridor in 2017 has delivered 7,000 of units of blood across Rwanda and plans to expand.

CYRIL NDEGEYA/AFP/Getty Images

We’ve reported on Zipline’s impressive large-scale drone delivery system in Rwanda before, but the start-up just keeps ascending to new levels. According to CNBC, Zipline has orchestrated over 5,000 successful drone missions in the country at this point, resulting in 7,000 units of lifesaving blood being aerially delivered to Rwandan hospitals in need of plasma and platelets. 

The company's work has led CNBC to call it "the most important delivery breakthrough since Amazon Prime" and added it to CNBC's 2018 Disruptor 50 list, which ranks companies based on their influence in a given industry, in this case, drones. 

Rwanda’s infrastructure makes it difficult for conventional delivery methods to reach hospitals, doctors and their patients in time, which is why unmanned aerial vehicles are such a literal lifesaver in the country. While similar endeavors (such as Swiss Post and Matternet’s in Switzerland) seem to be functioning well, Zipline’s world's first large-scale drone delivery system of medical supplies in Rwanda is one of a kind. 

Blood is “expensive, lifesaving but doesn’t last very long,” explained Zipline co-founder and CEO, Keller Rinaudo in a CNBC report. “So traditional supply chains do a very poor job of distributing it. Using drones, we can delivery blood 10 times as quickly as cars, on demand.” 

As it stands, the company has achieved over 186, 311 miles (300,000 km) of aerial deliveries, across 5,000 flights that have provided 7,000 units of blood to health care services. To receive blood, a doctor texts the company with the blood type and the number of units needed, and will wait less than 30 minutes for a drone to drop off a parachute-modulated package at the desired location. The service is currently capable of reaching over 10 million Rwandans, and has no plans of slowing down just yet.

“By virtue of being the only company doing this, we’re also learning faster,” said Rinaudo. “Everything about the service we provide is improving on a monthly basis. It’s very easy to do a demonstration flight over a few kilometers in perfect weather once, but very hard to run a fully automated system operating at national scale, capable of doing hundreds of flights a day in any weather, that people can rely on with their lives.” 

According to Michael Mazur, a partner in PwC’s Drone Powered Solutions who spoke with CNBC, the sheer amount of regular drone missions accomplished by Zipline puts it far above the total registered drone flights in both Amazon and Google’s history. 

While the former has been testing aerial delivery in Cambridge, England, and the latter in parts of Australia, none of them come anywhere close to Zipline’s scrappy yet large-scale start-up project in Rwanda. “They didn’t have the luxury of waiting around for years to launch their product and generate revenue,” explained Timothy Reuter, head of the World Economic Forum’s drone project in San Francisco, according to the CNBC report.

It’s impressive to see such a young company, which only created Africa’s first drone-corridor alongside UNICEF last year, have ambitions so vast that its leaders are already envisioning a worldwide service with global ramifications for the planet’s healthcare system. “Instant delivery will enable us to achieve 100 percent access to health care for every human on the planet,” said Rinaudo. “It’s not a complicated idea, and it’s something that every family wants, no matter where you live.”

Zipline recently gained access to the Trump administration’s UAS Integration Pilot Program here in the U.S. and will work alongside Matternet and Flytrex for drone delivery testing in North Carolina. The company officially claims that it plans to launch in new countries “on a pretty consistent basis” before 2018 is even up, according to the CNBC report.