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California drone heads to Africa on mission to save lives

While Amazon and other U.S.-based businesses look set for a long wait before they can begin drone deliveries, a San Francisco startup is about to launch its own service in Rwanda in a mission to get vital supplies to isolated communities.

Zipline International has developed a fixed-wing aircraft to fly medicine and blood supplies to hard-to-reach locations in the small East African nation. The company, which has received $18 million of funding from the likes of Sequoia Capital, Google Ventures,  and Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang, has struck a deal with the Rwandan government and will begin operations as early as this summer.

The Zipline team demonstrated its 22-pound unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) in San Francisco over the weekend. The autonomous flying machine can make round trips of up to 75 miles, meaning just two drone hubs will be enough to reach some 20 clinics located around Rwanda.

“It’s really hard to make sure people have access to the medicine they need and so Zipline is designed to allow public health care systems to be able to always make a delivery when someone’s in trouble,” Keller Rinaudo, CEO and co-founder of Zipline, told the Associated Press.

rwanda clinics

Each drone mission requires a fresh battery, a loaded flight plan, and of course the all-important package containing medical supplies weighing up to 3.5 pounds. With the package placed safely inside a compartment aboard the flying machine, the drone is launched in rather spectacular fashion via compressed air (check it out in the video).

Upon reaching its destination, the UAV automatically releases the package, which then floats down with a parachute to the waiting recipients.

Rinaudo says his company can operate more easily in developing countries such as Rwanda as less air traffic means fewer regulations, an issue that’s causing problems for many companies in more developed countries that are keen to incorporate drone technology into their work.

“The U.S. has one of the most complicated airspaces in the world and for that reason the FAA is even more risk-averse than most regulators,” Rinaudo noted. “So I think where this will start is in environments where the need is incredibly high and the airspace is relatively empty.”

Rinaudo’s business partner Will Hetzler said this summer Zipline will begin its Rwanda operation by delivering blood products to remote areas, adding, “This is a service we believe will save thousands of lives over the coming year, and that as we grow we’ll have an enormous impact on communities’ access to health care.”

Meanwhile, back in the U.S., companies such as Amazon, Google, and Walmart are hoping the FAA’s first set of comprehensive commercial drone regulations, set to be announced this spring, will be flexible enough for them to take their delivery ambitions to the next stage of development.