A Silicon Valley startup is delivering blood bags by drone to some of the most remote places on Earth

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Melia Robinson

A staggering 95% of roads in Africa wash out every year, which makes it nearly impossible for people in some developing countries to receive medical supplies when they need them most.

Zipline, a startup out of Silicon Valley, wants to replace traditional modes of transportation with drones. In Rwanda, the company’s delivery service flies blood bags – plasma, platelets, and red blood cells needed for transfusions – from a central hub to primary health clinics and hospitals.

The company has flown 100,000 kilometers in Rwanda since the program’s launch last year, delivering 2,600 units of blood over 2,000 flights, according to a press release.

In early 2018, Zipline will launch what it says is the world’s largest drone delivery network through a partnership with the Tanzanian government. Its four distribution centers will service an area that covers 10 million to 11 million people, roughly a quarter of the population.

In 2016, we toured the top-secret Zipline headquarters in Half Moon Bay, California. Here’s how drone delivery is saving lives in some of the most remote places on Earth.


This little guy — a drone that looks more like a character from the “Cars” spinoff movie “Planes” than a quadcopter — could be the future of the healthcare industry.

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Melia Robinson

In Rwanda, 30,000 people receive blood transfusions annually for postpartum hemorrhaging, severe anemia due to malaria infection, and other potentially fatal conditions.


Typically, a hospital worker will drive two hours to the nearest blood bank to collect donations, if the roads are passable. Storms often wipe out roads in rural areas.


It’s a logistical nightmare. Keller Rinaudo, CEO of Zipline, told Business Insider he wants to “eliminate the ‘lack of roads’ excuse” so that local health clinics can save more lives.

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The Tanzania, US, and Rwanda flags hang in the Zipline International workshop.
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Melia Robinson

The company poached employees from SpaceX, Google, NASA, and Boeing, and spent more than four years in stealth mode developing a fleet of autonomous aerial vehicles.

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Melia Robinson

The drone that launched in 2016 could fly 150 miles round-trip, at speeds between 50 and 85 miles per hour, on a single battery charge.

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Melia Robinson

When a clinic needs blood, it calls in an order from a central transfusion center.

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People stack Zipline delivery boxes at a central transfusion center in Rwanda.
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Zipline

The delivery box can hold up to three pounds of medical supplies, which are most often blood bags. Zipline’s proprietary packaging has a coating that protects it from rain.

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Zipline

In May 2016, the company announced a partnership with mail carrier UPS that will allow it to work on the technology necessary to drop vaccines and antivenom by drone in the future.


The package is spring-loaded into the belly of the drone, and it’s ready for take-off.

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Melia Robinson

During a demo at Zipline’s headquarters, an employee slung the drone into a catapult.

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Melia Robinson

On an iPad, another employee performed a final checklist. It was ready for take-off.

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Melia Robinson

With the push of a launch button, the drone zipped into the cold coastal air. It made a loud whirring sound, like an electric hand dryer, as it flew high overhead.

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Melia Robinson

Though the drone will work in most weather conditions, it’s not immune to wear and tear. Zipline has no plans to place its employees at the blood banks, which puts IT support in short supply. Still, most components in the build have back-up parts for redundancy.

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Melia Robinson

In the first year of flying in Rwanda, Zipline did not lose any drones to theft.


Back at the pretend central transfusion hub, employees tracked the drone from an iPad app. While it flies autonomously, the health workers in Rwanda can take control of the drone at any time.

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Melia Robinson

As the drone neared its designated drop site, which employees call Cow Country, the propellers quieted and it lost altitude. With a dim popping noise, the package released.

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Zipline

Without ever touching the ground, the drone began its return trip. Meanwhile, we hunted down the package.

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Melia Robinson

The parachute felt like wax paper. The entire packaging costs less than $1 and is reusable.

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Melia Robinson

Its contents — a blood bag of red food coloring and tissue paper — were in pristine condition.

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Melia Robinson

A Zipline employee referred to the drone system as a “magically simple solution.”

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Melia Robinson

“People rely on us with their lives,” Rinaudo said.

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Melia Robinson