When Drone Delivery Makes Sense: When You're Flying Life-Saving Blood to Hospitals

A small fixed-wing drone flies through the sky, and a small package drops slowly down to earth with a parachute attached.
Photo: Zipline

Amazon just made news when its Prime Air delivery drone did its first public demo, landing on a lawn in California to drop off a few bottles of sunscreen for attendees of an Amazon conference on automation. But the cofounder and CTO of the drone delivery startup Zipline doesn’t think much of Amazon’s experiments in this area, or Google’s either.

Have you been near one of those quadrocopters when it sets down, Zipline’s Keenan Wyrobek asks? “They’re huge things with the power and blade size of four lawnmowers,” he says. “They land on ground next to you, kicking up dust, and it’s not a very good experience.” 

And then there’s the importance of what they’re transporting. While Amazon dropped off sunscreen for Silicon Valley insiders, and Google has talked with Domino’s about pizza delivery, Zipline is delivering life-saving blood to hospitals in Rwanda.

Zipline started its delivery service in Rwanda in October to solve a tough problem in a country with bad roads and rugged terrain. It’s known as the land of a thousand hills. Doctors at Rwanda’s hospitals often need blood packs to treat postpartum women who are hemorrhaging and kids with malaria-induced anemia, but shortages are all too common, especially of rare blood types.

Previously, when a blood delivery was urgently needed, someone would drive across the country with a cooler in the backseat. The country’s geography didn’t make it an easy journey, particularly during the rainy seasons (Rwanda has two) when dirt roads and bridges get washed out. Too often, the driver wouldn’t make it in time to save the patient’s life.

An aerial photograph shows a green hilly landscape with lines drawn over it to show the delivery route of a drone, which circles above its destination to drop a parachute package.

Now doctors at about a dozen hospitals can text in requests for urgently needed blood, and a Zipline drone will arrive within half an hour. The company is currently flying eight of its fixed-wing Zips from a single distribution center in Muhanga, a district about 50 kilometers west of the capital. Its drones don’t land; instead the doctor gets a text when the craft is about two minutes away and comes outside to receive a package that parachutes gently down.

Zipline’s Wyrobek says the company’s engineers originally considered building delivery drones that landed at their destinations; that’s what Amazon, Google, and other drone-makers like Matternet have done (another drone-maker, Flirtey, lowers its cargo on a tether). But he says they rejected the idea for three practical reasons: The parachute-drop system is safer for recipients, the drones don’t waste battery power on landings and takeoffs, and the whole process is faster. “Landing just doesn’t scale,” he says. “We couldn’t imagine trying to do hundreds of flights a day with landings and taking off again.”

Before Zipline could start operations, it had to work with the Rwanda government to ensure that its Zips compiled with flight regulations and its procedures adhered to medical standards for blood handling. Wyrobek says government officials were eager to make the project work, seeing both health and economic benefits. 

Once blood is donated, it has about a 40-day shelf life, Wyrobek explains. In that time, it has to be taken from donation sites to a central lab to be blood-typed and tested for diseases like HIV and hepatitis, then distributed to hospitals around the country. But there’s a forecasting problem: It’s hard to know where packs of rare blood types will be needed in the next few weeks. As a result, some hospitals don’t have the packs they need while other packs go unused and wasted. 

A fixed-wing drone flies across the sky. The name "Zipline" is written on its side.

Zipline solves that problem by providing immediate on-demand delivery. Its current distribution center in Muhanga will ultimately serve 21 hospitals within a radius of 75 km. Once that network is firmly established, the company will set up more distribution centers around the country in locations “where the paved roads end,” Wyrobek says. The company aims to be the primary blood supply for most of Rwanda’s hospitals.

The company plans to eventually expand delivery service to small health clinics and even community health workers in remote villages. It also wants to expand its product offerings. Like blood, many vaccines and medications have to be kept cold—and in Rwanda, unexpected power cuts can turn off a clinic’s refrigerator for hours, wasting the medication inside. Zipline uses insulated packages so its products stay cold through transport and are ready for use on arrival. 

If the medical delivery scheme proves itself in Rwanda, the company hopes to bring its operation to other developing countries that lack basic infrastructure like good roads and stable power supplies. Zipline is exploring its options beyond Rwanda, though Wyrobek won’t say where. (He spoke to IEEE Spectrum from an “undisclosed location” in South America.)

Wyrobek and his colleagues weren’t sure how the initial Rwanda rollout would go, and worried that locals might take a negative view of the project. After all, in many parts of the world, American drones are more associated with dropping bombs than dropping medicine. But at the Muhanga distribution center, the response has been encouraging. “We still have crowds showing up every morning just to watch Zips take off and land,” Wyrobek says. “They call them sky ambulances.”

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