Autonomous drones deliver blood, medical supplies to remote locations

Keller Rinaudo speaking at the Business Insider Ignition conference on Monday.

At Business Insider’s Ignition conference earlier this week, Zipline CEO Keller Rinaudo says the company he helped co-found five years ago is already making drone deliveries today. But instead of consumer products, Zipline has focused on humanitarian needs, delivering medical supplies to rural communities around the world. The goal, he said, is to change the world with technology.

Rinaudo says he wants to focus on things that are happening right now as we speak, not mere aspirations. “Zipline operates the world’s first instant delivery system for medicine. We do that using small, autonomous, electric airplanes. They weigh about 40 pounds, they fly themselves, and they can make deliveries to some of the most remote regions of the world essentially instantly, in 15-30 minutes.

Before the company was founded Rinaudo says they were going through an array of experiences in which they were not able to get much-needed medical supplies to remote regions in Africa. They had the medical supplies, but the vehicles would get bogged down in mud and an array of other obstacles. He learned that an estimated 5.8 million people die a year from lack of medical care and access in these areas. In a world with so much wealth “it seemed completely insane to us that no one had applied technology to solve this problem once and for all.”

Today Zipline provides blood to about 35% of the entire country of Rwanda, and at about 60% of the hospitals. They deliver 36 different kinds of blood. “Many women in Rwanda go through post-partum hemorrhaging and the access to blood is crucial to their very survival. A huge amount of blood goes to kids under the age of five. When you need blood for these groups, you need it fast,” says Rinaudo.

“This is the largest fully autonomous system in the world. When people think autonomous is going to start in the U.S. and trickle down to the rest of the world that couldn’t be further from the truth,” he says. He also says the model is sustainable. Right now the Ministry of Health pays Zipline for every delivery they make. He says they can scale their system over time. “This is not philanthropy,” he says. “Really, really important.” 

“We don’t think the exciting potential for that technology is delivering burritos or pizza. We think the exciting potential for that technology is providing universal access to health care to every human on the planet,” he says.

The company has literally saved thousands of lives in the few years it has been developing—and then executing—its plans. One of the challenges they face, however, is that they have to build not only the technology, but also the planes, and the way those planes are launched “completely from scratch.” The team owns the full system, which involves how the drones can land in a precise way. Because they own all points in the development system they can iterate with great efficiency, and they company is constantly testing to improve their launches and landings. Right now, they’re capable of launching (and landing) hundreds of flights a day.

The company is now expanding from delivering blood to delivery 35 different kinds of medical supplies. As a result, Rwanda is set toward leading the world in terms of health care access. Other remote and countries—and also rural areas in the U.S.—are now lining up to use Zipline’s services.

For the full story at the Business Insider Ignition conference, check out the video here. Zipline’s presentation begins at the 39:14 mark.

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Chad Prevost

Chad is radio host and broadcast media specialist for FreightWaves.