The prospect of drones zipping around above our heads is often viewed as an annoyance--or even a danger. But some could provide vital help.

In July, Zipline, an autonomous robotics company in San Francisco, will start using drones to deliver blood and medicine to patients in remote  health centers across Rwanda.

During a private live video stream on the Periscope app on Friday, Zipline announced plans to open a small launching hub for its fleet of 15 autonomous drones. When a patient needs a blood transfusion, antibiotics, vaccines, or antivenom, a doctor, nurse, or health center technician will send Zipline a text message and a drone will airdrop 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 lazily to the ground. The craft will then return to the launch site.

"Our mission is to deliver critical medical products to hospitals and health centers that are basically unreachable with standard modes of transportation," Zipline co-founder and CEO Keller Rinaudo said during the announcement. "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."

In the video announcement, the company showed journalists how the package is packed into the drone's payload, then demonstrated a launch, flight, and airdrop from near the company's headquarters. Rinaudo explained that because the delivery is so quick--the drones can reach a speed of 140 km/hour and can fly in inclement weather and heavy winds--the blood and vaccines do not need to be refrigerated. Military-grade GPS enables the drones to fly autonomously, with accuracy down to the centimeter, based on a pre-determined route. They can hold a payload of up to 3 1/2 pounds, which allows for two standard packets of blood and enough vaccines for a few patients.

Rinaudo founded Zipline with Will Hetzler and Keenan Wyrobek in 2011. The company has raised $18 million in funding from investors including Sequoia Capital, Google Ventures, and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. Staffed by former aerospace employees from NASA, SpaceX, and Boeing, the company has partnered with the National Center of Blood Transfusion and signed a deal with Rwanda's ministry of health to provide medical delivery services.

Zipline is launching its service in Africa, Rinaudo says, because the area's medical supply delivery system is broken. The relative lack of infrastructure on the continent makes emergency medical deliveries especially difficult. The last mile of delivery is usually done by motorbike, which can be expensive and unreliable.

"6.3 million kids died worldwide [last year] because they didn't have access to medicine," Rinaudo says. "We want to change that."

Zipline avoids the dirt roads all together and flies in uncontested airspace at 400 feet. The company says it can make deliveries twice a day to each health center it will serve--as many as 150 deliveries daily--at a lower cost than delivery by motorbike. 

Zipline has plans to expand to other countries, including the U.S., but must wait to do so until the Federal Aviation Administration releases commercial guidelines for drone companies.

"The FAA is incredibly risk averse, so it will take off in areas of the world where the airspace is open," Rinaudo says.

Watch the video of the launch below.

 

--video credit: Justin Hamilton

Published on: Apr 4, 2016