By Evan Ackerman and Eliza Strickland
While companies like Amazon pour considerable resources into finding ways of using drones to deliver such things as shoes and dog treats, Ziplinehas been saving lives in Rwanda since October 2016 with drones that deliver blood. Zipline’s autonomous fixed-wing drones now form an integral part of Rwanda’s medical-supply infrastructure, transporting blood products from a central distribution center to hospitals across the country. And in 2018, Zipline’s East African operations will expand to include Tanzania, a much larger country.
Delivering critical medical supplies in this region typically involves someone spending hours (or even days) driving a cooler full of life-saving medicine or blood along windy dirt roads. Such deliveries can become dangerous or even impossible to make if roads and bridges get washed out.
Zipline’s drones avoid such problems entirely, slashing delivery times to minutes. The drones, called Zips, fly blood packs from a distribution center in Muhanga, Rwanda, to 21 hospitals located within 75 kilometers. In an emergency, a doctor can use WhatsApp Messenger to request blood, which gets packed into a Zip that’s fired into the air with a catapult. Using GPS navigation (and in coordination with Rwandan air traffic control), the drone heads for its target.