Zipline, a San Francisco-based robotics company, is expanding its medical supply and blood delivery drone program it started last month in Rwanda to rural, hard-to-reach communities in Maryland, Nevada and Washington state, the company announced this week.
Zipline, which was founded in 2011 by Keller Rinaudo, Will Hetzler and Keenan Wyrobek, is currently delivering life-saving supplies via its 25-pound drone all over Rwanda. The electric drones can carry 3 pounds of blood or medicine and can fly 75 miles before recharging. The company's U.S.-based program should be in the air in a year.
"When you look at rural or isolated communities, particularly Native American populations, populations that live on islands, you have serious health outcome inequalities," Rinaudo, Zipline's founder and CEO, tells The Verge. "There's a linear relationship between how far away you live from a city and your expected lifespan. So our hope is that this type of technology can solve those kinds of inequalities."
To launch the U.S. program, Zipline partnered with health care companies Ellumen, Bloodworks Northwest, and ASD Healthcare. As of right now, the areas it plans to serve include Smith Island in Maryland and San Juan Islands of Washington.
Ordering Zipline's service is almost as easy as hailing an Uber. When a patient needs a blood transfusion, antibiotics, vaccines, or antivenom, a doctor, nurse, or health center technician sends Zipline a text message and a drone airdrops the needed supplies within 30 minutes. The drone will send a message to the health center when it is two minutes away and the package, equipped with a parachute, will fall to the ground. The craft will then return to the launch site on its own.
Zipline, which has raised $18 million in funding from investors including Sequoia Capital, Google Ventures, and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, is staffed by former aerospace employees from NASA, SpaceX, and Boeing. The company partnered with the National Center of Blood Transfusion and signed a deal with Rwanda's ministry of health to provide medical delivery services. After launching in Africa, the White House asked Rinaudo about starting the same program in the U.S. to serve remote communities, including those in Native American reservations.
If you follow drone regulations, you know exactly why Zipline launched abroad. Commercial drone use in the U.S. has been held back by regulations. Drones are considered aircraft and pilots must adhere to strict line-of-sight rules, caps on altitude, and other restrictions. But in June, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) released new rules that will hopefully help commercial drone pilots be authorized to take to the skies for commercial purposes. Strict rules will still remain: pilots must be able to see the drone at all times and drones can only undertake one mission at a time. Rinaudo says Zipline is applying for an FAA waiver so it can start operating and let its autonomous drones fly without a pilot following beneath the aircraft in the air.
Back in April, Rinaudo said he believes Zipline's drones, which are called "Zips," will be able to help revolutionize the way emergency medicine is delivered to people in remote locations.
"Patients frequently die because of lack of access to a basic medical product that exists in a central warehouse 75 kilometers away but can't make it out that final mile to the person who needs it," said Rinaudo.