An American company is now using drones to deliver medical supplies in Rwanda

The likes of Amazon and Google may have a ways to go before they have a chance of getting any kind of U.S.-based drone delivery service off the ground, but a much smaller American company has made significant process overseas with a similar kind of operation.

Using a 29-pound (13 kg) fixed-wing unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), Zipline International this week officially launched a medical service in Rwanda, delivering vital medical supplies to remote parts of the country.

Zipline - Team
Zip drones and the launch device.

Fifteen custom-built “Zip” drones operate from a distribution center, with the autonomous flying machine able to make round trips of up to 93 miles (150 kilometers), a distance that allows it to cover much of the small African nation. Medical facilities around the country can order blood, vaccines, or medication via text message. A team at the center then loads up the battery-powered drone and sets the flight plan before catapulting it skyward to begin its journey.

Consignments can weigh up to 3.3 pounds (1.5 kg), and the drone’s top speed of 60 mph (97 kmh) means it can reach any of 20 designated hospitals in good time, dropping off supplies using a biodegradable parachute. It then returns to base where it’s carefully brought safely back to terra firma (check out the landing in the video above).

“One delivery, one life saved. It’s that simple,” Zipline says on its website.

rwanda clinics
Drone base and Rwanda clinics.

The California-based robotics company has received funding from the likes of Sequoia Capital, Google Ventures, and Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang, and earlier this year struck a deal with the Rwandan government to use its technology to deliver medical supplies to isolated communities.

“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,” Zipline CEO Keller Rinaudo told the Associated Press earlier this year.

Having launched its operation in Rwanda following months of testing, Zipline is now hoping to take a similar service to the U.S., focusing initially on remote communities in Maryland, Nevada, and Washington.

Of course, there are still many regulatory hoops to jump through, but now that it’s proven its ability to operate a safe and efficient service in Rwanda, Zipline hopes it can convince the authorities to allow it to do the same in the U.S.


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