Could drones help deliver urgently needed medical supplies to remote locations in as little as half an hour?
That's the goal of Zipline, a San Francisco-based startup that has partnered with the Rwandan government to begin making deliveries across more than half of the small East African nation in July.
The effort, which uses small, fixed-wing drones, will help provide pharmaceuticals, blood, and other supplies to remote locations up to 40 miles away.
"You have a database of people. You know their lives are in danger," Zipline CEO Keller Rinaudo told the Associated Press. "Can you get them what they need fast enough? That’s been the mission from the start."
The drones, which weigh just 22 pounds, are launched into the air using a launcher powered by compressed air. Electric propellers, guided by GPS and navigation software, then direct the drones to a designated drop-off area.
The company showed what would happen next during a recent demonstration in a field near San Francisco, broadcast on the video streaming app Periscope: as the drone hovers over the ground, a hatch opens and a cardboard box equipped with a paper parachute pops out and then settles on the ground.
Despite its small size, the drone's speed would allow the company to make as many as 50 to 150 deliveries of blood and emergency medicine possible each day, eliminating the need to keep supplies refrigerated over long transportation periods. Each package can weigh up to 3.5 pounds.
That would represent a vast improvement over previous systems used around the world to transport medical supplies by pickup truck or motorcycle that often involved crossing difficult terrain, The New York Times reports. Zipline drones cost about the same as a motorcycle trip, executives say.
While tech giants such as Amazon and Google have long been promising package delivery by drone, they've faced a slew of regulatory obstacles in the US, including the issue of drones colliding with other unmanned vehicles or planes.
That regulatory confusion has led some startups, including Zipline and a company called Flirtey — which recently demonstrated a successful drone delivery to an unoccupied house in Nevada — to focus primarily on testing their drone efforts outside the US.
In addition to its deal with Zipline, which was signed in February, the Rwandan government is also looking to introduce a larger cargo drone effort, partnering with the Red Line Foundation, a charitable organization based in Switzerland which focuses on robotics research.
The postal carrier DHL previously introduced a pilot program to carry medical supplies to a remote island in Germany’s North Sea via a small rotary-blade drone, but Rwanda’s effort would be the first commercial drone delivery network, Zipline executives say.
"The concept of drone ports is something that a very small decision-making unit in the country decided they were going to do," Michael Fairbanks, a member of Rwandan President Paul Kagame's presidential advisory council told The Times. "It took a very short time. It’s something that America could learn from."
To build the system, the company has raised $18 million in funds backed by firms such as GV (formerly known as Google Ventures) and Stanford University. Individual funders include Jerry Yang, a co-founder of Yahoo, and Paul Allen, a co-founder of Microsoft.
A team from Zipline will be based near Kigali, Rwanda's capital. If the drone delivery effort goes well, they hope to expand it to other countries.
"The U.S. has one of the most complicated airspaces in the world and for that reason the [Federal Aviation Administration] is even more risk-averse than most regulators," Mr. Rinaudo told the AP. "So I think where this will start is in environments where the need is incredibly high and the airspace is relatively empty."