Drones are already being considered for news reporting, home delivery, and even new racing entertainment. Now the healthcare industry is taking a closer look at unmanned aerial vehicles, with one California company having begun testing the viability of using drones to deliver critical medical supplies overseas.
Zipline, based in Half Moon Bay near San Francisco, recently set up a base of operations with 10 employees and 15 of its custom designed and built unmanned aircraft — Zips — in Rwanda. With help from an $800,000 grant from the UPS Foundation, the company has signed a one-year partnership agreement with the African nation’s government, and is taking over last-mile delivery of units of blood for transfusions for the western half of the country.
Over the next few months the startup plans to ramp up to between 50 and 100 deliveries a day, seven days a week. By the end of the year, deliveries are expected to start in the eastern half of Rwanda as well.
“The biggest thing isn’t necessarily the cost savings,” said Ryan Oksenhorn, Zipline’s software engineering lead, in a phone interview. “The biggest thing is every delivery we make will be providing health service to remote areas and people that were previously not receiving it at all.”
Over two years Zipline, which employs 35 people and has raised $18 million in funding to date, has worked to build a drone delivery system capable of operating on a national scale. In Rwanda, those first 15 drones, each one capable of flying more than 100 miles an hour, will ship blood received from large district hospitals and warehouses to 20 health clinics in the western half of the country using one distribution site. Oksenhorn said each Zip can fly to any location within 70 kilometers, or about 43 miles. The drones themselves resemble small airplanes with wingspans of 6 feet, are capable of lugging almost 3 pounds, and are powered by two interchangeable batteries.
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