In the U.S., drone delivery is still in the research and development phase. But in Rwanda, starting today, American-made drones will deliver blood to patients in need.

Zipline, an autonomous robotics company based in San Francisco, has partnered with the Rwandan government to make up to 150 deliveries each day to 21 different transfusion clinics in the western half of the country. During a ceremony in the Muhanga District in Rwanda on Friday morning (Thursday night in the states), Rwandan president Paul Kagame launched the first drone to mark the beginning of the nation's drone delivery service.

Rwanda's drone delivery service will focus on blood at first but will soon expand to vaccines, medical supplies, and other medicines through a partnership between UPS and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. Zipline's aircraft will expand its delivery route to the eastern half of the country by 2017. Over the next three years, Zipline CEO and co-founder Keller Rinaudo says, the startup and the Rwandan government can save thousands of lives, and he hopes Zipline can eventually provide medical supplies to all of the 11 million Rwandan citizens in need.

In Rwanda, many patients die each year because blood and medical supplies cannot get to medical centers in rural areas because of poor infrastructure and impassable roads. Most "last-mile" deliveries are done by motorbike, but in emergency situations the motorbikes cannot make deliveries fast enough. During the country's rainy season, the roads connecting cities to remote villages can wash out and prevent ground transportation entirely. But the drones, which reach a top speed of 140 kilometers per hour (about 87 mph), can fly in rain and heavy wind and can deliver the blood before it spoils. The drones can make a delivery 75 kilometers away (about 47 miles) within 30 minutes.

"The inability to deliver life-saving medicines to the people who need them the most causes millions of preventable deaths each year around the world," says Rinaudo. "Zipline will help solve that problem once and for all. We've built an instant delivery system for the world, allowing medicine to be delivered on-demand and at low-cost, anywhere."

This is how Zipline's drone delivery system works: When a patient needs a blood transfusion, a doctor, nurse, or health center technician will send Zipline a text message and a drone from its fleet of 15 aircraft will airdrop the needed supplies in half an hour. 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 safely to the ground. The craft will then return to the launch site all by itself.

Zipline, which was founded by Keller Rinaudo, Will Hetzler, and Keenan Wyrobek in 2011 in California, has raised $18 million in funding from investors including Sequoia Capital, Google Ventures, and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. The company is composed of aerospace employees from NASA, SpaceX, and Boeing.

The private-public partnership between the Silicon Valley company and Rwanda was padded by a $1.1 million grant from the UPS Foundation. The UPS Foundation grant will help Zipline expand its offerings to vaccines and other supplies. (UPS delivered Zipline's infrastructure, the launch pad, and the fleet of 15 drones to Rwanda.)

Thanks to regulatory hurdles, Zipline is not currently operating medical supply deliveries in the U.S. The Federal Aviation Administration currently does not allow autonomous drones. The FAA's rules require a pilot on the ground to keep the aircraft in line of sight at all times. Once approved by the U.S. government, Zipline hopes to bring the same model to the U.S. by next year and plans to serve Native American reservations in Maryland, Nevada, and Washington State.

Published on: Oct 13, 2016