Drones to the rescue!

Imagine you’re a doctor in a rural village in Rwanda hoping to perform a blood transfusion for a pregnant woman in critical condition in order to save her life; however, you do not have the blood supply that would be necessary for you to properly treat your patient. The nearest hospital is several hours away by car, but you are certain that your patient would not survive more than a couple hours without the transfusion. What should you do?

Just ask a nurse to text Zipline for a blood delivery by drone!

Although many of us take access to quality hospitals and cutting-edge healthcare for granted, the World Health Organization reported earlier this year that over 400 million people in the world lack access to proper medical treatment [1].  This situation is especially troubling in developing nations throughout the Middle East and Africa, where political turmoil and treacherous terrain can make delivery of blood and medical supplies a difficult, sometimes impossible, task.  Zipline, a robotics and drone company based out of Silicon Valley, may have found a solution. By partnering with Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, the Rwandan government, and UPS Foundation, Zipline’s team has developed a way to get medical supplies into the hands of medical care providers who can save thousands of lives: by building and launching the world’s first fleet of medical delivery drones [2].

Hold up – What is a drone?  You mean those white flying camera toys people use to take panoramic pictures of their wedding parties?

Although the fundamental technology has been around for decades, the average person has historically associated the word “drone” with intelligence gathering or covert operations in the Middle East [3].  Drones are classified as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), and can take on a variety of shapes and sizes depending on the intended use and functionality. As UAVs made their entrance into the commercial sphere over the course of the last few years, drones began to gain attention in the headlines for a variety of applications including delivering pizzas, guiding ships away from Arctic ice blocks, and, every once in a while, for making an unwelcome pit stop on the White House lawn [4] [5].

Inspired by the drone buzz and motivated by the potential impact of the newly formed partnership with the Rwandan government, Zipline’s 30-person team began building a fleet of customized “Zip” drones at a test facility on the outskirts of San Francisco. The entire system, once completed, was then transported by a UPS logistics team to the central hub, or “Nest” in Rwanda [1].

Using the Nest as a home base, the Zips are powered by a mounted battery and launched into the air by a catapult, after which the drones can guide themselves using GPS location data; this information is transmitted back to the hub as well as to Rwandan air traffic authorities by cellular connection.  The drones stay below 500 ft of altitude to avoid interfering with passenger airliners, and cut what would have been a 3-4 hour voyage by car to under 30 minutes.  When the Zip reaches its destination, a cardboard box containing the medical supplies is dropped into a designated “mailbox” area, where it is retrieved by a health professional.  Zipline’s first batch of drones will be making an estimated 150 trips per day to the 21 clinics selected to participate in the pilot program (see Zip launch and transfusion clinic location network below, courtesy of Zipline).

Figure 1: Zip Launch


Figure 2: Map of Rwanda Drop Sites









Looking ahead…

As is often the case when innovation outpaces regulation, there have been mixed legislative reactions to the commercialization of drones across the globe. The US government recently eased restrictions and abandoned expensive legacy permit requirements for drone operation.  The U.S. Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) has estimated that the business generated under the new law will lead to the creation of more than 100,000 new jobs, yielding a whopping $82 billion for the American economy over the next decade [6].  Other countries have taken a more stringent approach to drone legislation due to terrorist and privacy concerns, thereby minimizing -or in Kenya’s case, eliminating – commercial UAV operation all together.  Alternatively, Ghana requires registration of all licensed drones, punishing violators with lengthy prison sentences.  Nigeria has taken a slightly more capitalistic approach, demanding each individual drone user to pay $2500 to apply for a 3-year permit- although applying for one by no means guarantees acceptance [7].

Although there are valid safety, privacy and security concerns about drones as the technology approaches mainstream status, it’s important to educate governments and individuals about the enormous benefits that can be derived from applying UAV and GPS technology to tackle complex problems in new and creative ways.  The type of public-private partnership established between Zipline and the Rwandan government can be replicated to serve endless purposes, including Malaria vaccine transport, dangerous mining, and pipeline inspection, just to name a few.  This model of cooperation and information-sharing is arguably the best way to win over drone-skeptics: saving lives, while working to understand the regulations that will be required to maintain safety and protect the public’s privacy.

(764 words)

Click to view Zipline Video


[1] WHO/World Bank Release, “New report shows that 400 million do not have access to essential health services,” June 12, 2015, http://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/releases/2015/uhc-report/en/ Accessed November 2016.

[2] “Rwanda Launches World’s First National Drone Delivery Service Powered By Zipline,” UPS Pressroom, October 13, 2016, https://www.pressroom.ups.com/pressroom/ContentDetailsViewer.page?ConceptType=PressReleases&id=1476387513855-624 Accessed November, 2016

[3] Dan Simmons, “Rwanda begins Zipline commercial drone deliveries,” BBC, October 14th, 2016. http://www.bbc.com/news/technology-37646474 Accessed November, 2016.

[4] Matt McFarland, “Ship relies on drone to avoid ice blocks Arctic waters,” CNN Money, November 5, 2016. http://money.cnn.com/2016/11/05/technology/arctic-drone-ship-navigate/index.html Accessed November, 2016.

[5] Kristen Holmes, “Man detailed outside White House for trying to fly drone,” CNN Politics, May 15, 2015. http://www.cnn.com/2015/05/14/politics/white-house-drone-arrest/ Accessed November, 2016.

[6] Nyshka Chandran, “FAA’s new drone laws go into effect Monday, allowing US companies to innovate,” CNBC, August 29, 2016. http://www.cnbc.com/2016/08/29/faas-new-drone-laws-go-into-effect-monday-allowing-us-companies-to-innovate.html Accessed November 2016.

[7] Cassie Werber, “Blood from heaven: The world’s first commercial drone service has launched in Rwanda, ” Quartz Africa, October 14,2016 http://qz.com/809576/zipline-has-launched-the-worlds-first-commercial-drone-delivery-service-to-supply-blood-in-rwanda/ Accessed November, 2016.




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Student comments on Drones to the rescue!

  1. I love this post and agree with you! Drones are fun for capturing action sports footage or wedding panoramas, as you mentioned, but they also open up a wide category of life-saving applications by being able to reach places faster and by providing new vantage points. It is important governments realize the vast beneficial potential drones have. To further support your post:

    Drones are being used for:
    Avalanche search and rescue: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=doC71R1wp-k
    Avalanche control: http://www.theinertia.com/mountain/drones-are-changing-avalanche-control-for-the-better/
    Avalanche control: https://www.outsideonline.com/2027266/newest-tool-avy-control-bomb-carrying-drones
    Zika research: http://www.popsci.com/microsoft-drones-are-fighting-zika-outside-houston
    Saving swimmers: https://www.youtube.com/watch?t=5&v=s4OTVoYqv4s
    Preventing shark attacks: http://www.travelandleisure.com/articles/australia-drones-patrol-sharks

  2. Thanks for an interesting post!
    These Zip drones seem like an effective solution to the last mile challenge in health care delivery in developing countries.

    Currently, the drones are being funded by these foundations/NGOs. It would be interesting to know whether the drones are cost-effective for the rural clinics – do you have any information on how much a marginal drone delivery would cost? I understand that these drones mostly deliver blood products, and I can imagine that in situations where blood is needed, the benefits of this service probably exceed the costs.
    Zipline is fortunate to have partners that provide funding for its service, but in other countries where governments or partners are harder to come by, Zipline will need to demonstrate that its services can be profitable.

    Also, do you know if Zipline is trying to raise awareness to build the physical infrastructure (roads, bridges) that places like Rwanda need in general? An unintended consequence of drones-at-your-service is distracting local governments from developing the infrastructure these places really need. At the same time, perhaps drones will allow Rwanda to leapfrog the huge capital investments needed to build such infrastructure – particularly if drone technology turns out to be quite cost-effective.

  3. This is a really cool use case for drones. Thanks for writing about it. I’m glad that you mentioned that while there are a high number of value-add use cases for drones, that the digital innovation has also introduced a new host of risks (terror related). But I think as medical supply drops, or other life-saving uses are implemented globally, it should be an innovation where the positive effects and lives saved by technology will vastly outweigh the risks. When do we get our Section B Drone?

  4. Awesome example of technology being put at the service of society! I think these type of solutions should not only be limited to places with limited access to good medical services – sometimes places saturated with such services need help too!

    For example, drone ambulance services could be a great tool to increase survival rates, particularly in cases of cardiac arrests. The type of drone developed by TU Delft can enable a defibrillator to reach your house in 1 minute, increasing survival rates from 8% to 80%. Mind blowing!


  5. Awesome post, thank you! I have a friend working at Zipline, who would have been a classmate of ours this year, but decided to defer to continue working in Rwanda. I love the idea of Zipline, and I think it is a great example of a company that sits at the intersection of business and government – with huge economic potential while also creating significant public value for society. You also raise some really legitimate points about regulatory challenges, which is one of the areas my friend is working on. Regulation can be good and bad. We need regulation to ensure safety, security, and to correct for market failures where they exist, but regulation can also hinder innovation and create huge barriers to entry. I think the benefits of drones are apparent and are becoming better understood – maybe what we really need, is to help governments develop regulations that make sense, to protect society and the industry? I struggle with Uber’s strategy of ignoring existing regulations when they enter new cities, and then continuing to fight them tooth and nail…I expect this will come back around eventually and hurt the company. I agree with you that Zipline’s collaborative and information-sharing approach is a much better, and hopefully will serve as a model for other disruptive technology companies.

  6. Great article Chantal. I remember following a similar company called Matternet 4 years ago when they first began using drones to deliver healthcare products in Africa, overcoming the massive infrastructure challenges you mentioned. Just like Zipline, their solution is truly inspirational and transforming across a range of possible industry applications. I particularly like how Zipline is differentiated by using a catapult launch system for their drones to reduce energy consumption needed if they self-accelerated. As a result, it seems Zipline can cover greater distances and respond faster to urgent medical needs. Apart from regulatory concerns, which is an ever-present risk to the viability and growth of new technologies, I’m curious about how Zipline is maintaining the quality of medical supplies they’re transporting (e.g., protecting against change in air pressure and heavy shaking) and ensuring flight safety (e.g., avoiding aerial obstacles such as birds or staying out of reach of thieves). Overall, I’m sure these issues can be overcome and look forward to seeing more life-saving innovations in the future.

  7. Chantal, great article! It’s always good to read how the new technologies are not only creating value for those at the top but also having a big impact in vulnerable communities. Even though I find this very exciting and I know that Zipline is testing the model in Rwanda to continue improving with the learnings, I believe there is a lot of work pending to be done before drones can reshape the healthcare industry. According to Mayo Clinic (1), drones hold great promise for medical products transport but the field is still in its infancy. There are several risks associated, like the number of aircrafts that could fly at the same time, how to install coolers to make sure that blood or certain medicines preserve their properties, and government regulations as you mention. The good thing is that companies are exploring the area and in the near future we will have new capabilities to improve health services in many regions of the world, saving many human lives!

    (1) http://www.mayoclinic.org/medical-professionals/clinical-updates/trauma/medical-drones-poised-to-take-off

  8. Drones are indeed finding applications in many industries. Regulation is certainly one big hurdle but we are already on the way to make progress. There are several challenges related to drones at the moment. 1. battery life. Most drones can not fly longer than 30mins. As with electric car industry, drone industry is likely to need battery boost in order for more people to adopt. 2. business models. Drone is becoming a commodity. Many startups are gearing towards becoming a data analytics service company in industries such as construction, agriculture and power line.

  9. Great post!

    With respect to Paul’s comment, it is interesting to note that Zipline is in fact a for profit, and its operations in Rwanda were negotiated at a price per delivery that generates a profit for the company. Great to make some money while saving lives in an innovative way.

    Also to Paul’s point, I worry too that some of the craze around drones could serve as an excuse for underinvestment in traditional infrastructure, particularly in countries like Rwanda (geographically small and densely populated). For countries with more dispersed geography/ populations (e.g., Indonesia, Nigeria’s delta region) where traditional infrastructure will never make economic sense, these types of drone delivery systems could have incredible impact — I would love to see Zipline tackle one of these areas next!

    It will also be really interesting to see what other health commodities this will be useful for. The model is an expensive replacement for commodities where you can forecast supply and demand (e.g., vaccines) and an impractical solution for bulkier commodities (e.g., bednets) — their core competency feels like it may be very small and expensive commodities that are not often needed (e.g., blood, antivenoms).

  10. Great Article, Chantal! My only concern with providing medical services via drones is that it is currently, drones are highly unregulated. I could see pharmaceutical companies in the US abusing this system to conduct clinical trials on local populations. They could fly in medical drugs in equipment to rural areas where people need critical care and would have no option but to use the provided equipment. Alternatively, medicines could be brought in disguised as “preventive care”. Drone technology for medical care has enormous potential. In cities like Accra and Lagos where there is gridlocked traffic where even ambulances can’t pass through, a drone with refrigeration capabilities could be the difference between life and death if someone is in urgent need of a blood supply.

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