Drone company Zipline International is expanding in Africa and will soon be coming to the U.S. The firm delivers lifesaving medicines, vaccines and blood supplies in Rwanda, and in April it announced that it is expanding its operations to Ghana. Both African countries have mountainous geography and poor road conditions, making it extremely difficult to deliver medical supplies by land vehicles.
In the three years since Zipline launched in Rwanda, its drones have made more than 13,000 deliveries and supplies more than half of the country’s blood supply. In Ghana the company will make on-demand emergency deliveries from four distribution centers. Each will have 30 drones to cover 2,000 health facilities and will be able to serve 12 million people. The company says each distribution center can make up to 500 drone flights each day.
Here’s how the company works: A doctor in a hospital or clinic in a remote area texts Zipline a list of what it needs. The products are stored at the company’s distribution centers in that country (in this case, Rwanda and Ghana) and then packaged in a small red Zipline box. The box is attached to a small parachute, which the drone then gently drops at the hospital or clinic. In fact, the box floats so gently, the receiver stands below to catch it. The autonomous aircraft then flies back to the distribution center to await its next delivery.
Zipline’s goal, says co-founder and CEO Keller Rinaudo, is to put every person on Earth within a 15- to 30-minute delivery radius of any essential medical product they need, no matter where they live.
Zipline’s customers are governments, pharmaceutical companies and large logistics networks. In an interview in March, Rinaudo said that in June the company will begin servicing hospitals and health centers covering half the state of North Carolina, putting millions of residents within access of its service. Operating in the U.S. is more complex, since the company needs to clear a number of government and regulatory hurdles, but the benefit is that doctors and patients will be able to get lifesaving medicines and blood supplies much faster. So far, the company has raised $43.6 million from some of the world’s top investors, including Sequoia Capital, Katalyst Ventures and a $3 million grant from the UPS Foundation.