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Zipline takes flight in Ghana, making it the world's largest drone-delivery network

Key Points
  • On Wednesday, Zipline International — the health-tech drone-delivery company that launched its service in Rwanda just three years ago — announced it has officially expanded its operations to Ghana.
  • This move makes it the world's largest autonomous medical drone delivery service.
  • Zipline will now deliver more than 170 different vaccines, blood products and medications to 2,500 health facilities. Its reach now serves nearly 22 million people.
A child at New Tafo Government Hospital in Ghana is being given the yellow fever vaccine, delivered by a Zipline drone.
Zipline International

On Wednesday, Zipline International — the health-tech drone-delivery company that launched its service in Rwanda just three years ago — announced it has officially expanded its operations to Ghana, making it the world's largest autonomous medical drone delivery service.

Over the last six months Zipline has expanded from one distribution company in Rwanda delivering blood to 21 hospitals to operating six distribution centers in two countries, delivering more than 170 different vaccines, blood products and medications to 2,500 health facilities. Its reach now serves nearly 22 million people.

Dedicated to providing every human on Earth with instant access to vital medical supplies, Zipline employs aerospace veterans from SpaceX, Google, Boeing and NASA to design and operate its autonomous systems, which can deliver a package within 30 minutes after a health-care worker places an order by text. Zipline's drones take off and land from its distribution centers.

"So much of the conversation these days is about this growing idea that tech is not benefiting a vast majority of people," said Zipline CEO Keller Rinaudo. "We really want to show that the right technology company with the right mission can help every person on the planet."

Access to vital health products worldwide has historically hampered the difficulty of supplying medicine from central storage to remotely located patients when and where they need it. In the U.S., this problem requires health systems to tolerate high medicine waste, expensive emergency trips and sub-optimal care strategies. In far too many other areas, the same problem means that people in need of lifesaving care do not get the medicine they need to survive.

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Increasing their reach 100-fold

California-based Zipline International plans to change that.

According to Zipline, the expansion of its operations in both Ghana and Rwanda will increase the number of health facilities the company serves 100-fold.

Since the company launched in Rwanda in 2016, delivering blood to remote hospitals, Zipline's drones have flown more than 1 million km across Rwanda and has made over 13,000 deliveries there, a third of which have been emergencies. Zipline now delivers more than 65% of Rwanda's blood supply outside Kigali, the nation's capital, and through a partnership with the Rwandan government, it now has clearance to deliver vaccines and other essential medical supplies. In December 2018 Zipline opened a second distribution center there.

In Ghana, the company will make on-demand, emergency deliveries of 148 different vaccines, blood products and medications and will operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week from four distribution centers. Each center will be equipped with 30 drones and deliver to 2,000 health facilities, serving 12 million people across the country. Each Zipline distribution center has the capacity to make up to 500 flights each day.

With its recent expansion into Ghana, Zipline is now able to deliver more than 170 different vaccines, blood products and medications to nearly 22 million people.
Zipline International

"In the last year, we completed roughly 4,000 lifesaving emergency deliveries, but what we're launching in Ghana is about 20 times the scale of that," said Zipline's Rinaudo, who adds that the company currently serves 25 facilities in Rwanda and is on track to serve nearly 2,000 facilities in Ghana by the end of the year.

"The exciting thing about this is that the technology has finally scaled to a point where we can talk about a country achieving universal access to health care," he said.

"The thing that people have consistently underestimated about Zipline, and that which is most special about the company, is that we have been able to hire fully local teams — brilliant flight engineers and flight operators and fulfillment operators — who have been able to do what some of the richest technology companies in the world have set out to do and failed."

The 'vibranium' of health care?

Rinaudo likens Zipline's mission to the movie Black Panther.

"Black Panther is a movie about a radical, technologically advanced African nation hiding in plain sight; And the whole concept behind that movie was meant to inspire a whole bunch of African-American kids, and kids growing up in developing countries, with regard to how they see the world in terms of technology — how they see these fictional superheroes that they can look up to," he said.

"The reality is, that is happening right now in the real world… in Rwanda, and now in Ghana. There are now autonomous aircraft crisscrossing the skies, making deliveries and saving people's lives, and most people in the U.S. don't even know that that's technologically possible… let alone happening at national scale."

VIDEO4:5304:53
Zipline CEO on drone-based health care in the US

Scaling way ahead of the tech giants

Backed by a number of investors, including Sequoia Capital, Andreessen Horowitz, GV, Katalyst Ventures, Yahoo founder Jerry Yang and Stanford University, Zipline has rapidly expanded in an industry that pits it against some of the largest tech companies in the world.

Amazon has been experimenting with drone delivery for a small group of customers in Cambridge, England, where it also has a drone research lab. Alphabet's Google has started drone tests in Australia, but their efforts lag far behind Zipline, a reason it earned the No. 25 spot on the 2018 CNBC Disruptor 50 list.

The company is currently working to expand drone delivery services to developed and developing countries across Africa, South Asia, Southeast Asia and the Americas throughout 2019. In addition, Zipline is working closely with North Carolina to launch its medical drone delivery as part of the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration's UAS Integration Pilot Program.

"World leading roboticists making it work at scale are the role models for the next million young engineers who are growing up in these countries and figuring out what they want to do with their lives," said Rinaudo.

The 2019 CNBC Disruptor 50 list will be revealed in May.

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Key Points
  • Eric Topol is a cardiologist and author, who studies how technology is changing medicine. 
  • He talks to CNBC about where artificial intelligence is making a difference in health care today, and where it's falling short. 
  • Topol thinks big tech companies are very serious about their ambitions to move into the $3.5 trillion medical sector.