Blood-bearing drones zipping through the sky sounds something like a scene from apocalyptic science fiction. But for doctors in Rwanda, it's the default method of lifesaving medical-supply delivery.
That's because of drone start-up Zipline International, a delivery and logistics company that launched in 2016 and operates the only autonomous drone system for delivering blood to remote hospitals in the African country.
Blood is "expensive, lifesaving but doesn't last very long," Zipline co-founder and CEO Keller Rinaudo said. "So traditional supply chains do a very poor job of distributing it. Using drones, we can deliver blood 10 times as quickly as cars, on demand."
Zipline has completed 300,000 km of autonomous flight across Rwanda — a nation known for its mountainous geography, difficult weather and poor infrastructure — delivering 7,000 units of blood over 5,000 flights.
A doctor in Rwanda with a patient in need and too little blood on hand can send a text to Zipline with the blood type and number of units needed. The blood is loaded into a box with a parachute and onto an autonomous plane — which drops the package at the designated hospital in 30 minutes or less.
Zipline doesn't disclose operational costs but said the cost to deliver by drone is on par with traditional methods of delivery, like car or motorcycle.
It can already reach more than 10 million people in Rwanda, and it's rapidly expanding.
"By virtue of being the only company doing this, we're also learning faster," said Rinaudo, whose vision is to lead the logistics industry into an instant, automated drone-delivery future. "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," Rinaudo said.