Creators: Zipline Offers Drone Aid to Remote Health Clinics

Stephanie Overby

Keller Rinaudo, co-founder and CEO, Zipline
Image Credit: Flickr CC: TED Conference

Drones get a bad rap. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), first introduced decades ago, have a largely negative connotation in modern life—from the Predator drones used to conduct targeted killings to law enforcement drones engaging in potentially unwarranted surveillance to mishandled consumer drones menacing the public.

Credit: Zipline

Keller Rinaudo, co-founder and CEO of Zipline International, sees the technology instead as a lifesaving mode of transport. In 2016, the Half Moon Bay, California, based drone delivery service signed its first partnership with the government of Rwanda to make the last-mile delivery of blood to transfusion facilities throughout the country. In August 2017, the company signed a larger deal with the government of Tanzania to provide 2,000 medical deliveries a day to its far-flung health facilities.

But Rinaudo’s drone dreams are even bigger: to enable on-demand, low-cost delivery of medicines and other products for the planet.

Pivotal Pivots

Rinaudo earned a degree in biotech from Harvard, where he built DNA computers. After spending a few years on the professional rock-climbing circuit, he shifted to robotics. Rinaudo was particularly interested in how smartphone components could open up new doors for robotics, ultimately launching the company Romotive in 2012 with the Vegas Tech Fund.

Romotive raised some US$7 million and spent more than two years developing an app-controlled robotic toy for iOS devices before Rinaudo determined he wanted to do something more impactful with robotics. Robots are really good at repetitive tasks, so Rinaudo spent a year exploring seemingly mundane tasks that were ripe for disruption, ultimately settling on an area where he thought robots could have the most impact: medical logistics and delivery.

The Last-Mile Problem

Zipline’s aircraft, called “Zips” can fly 10 times the distance of existing commercial UAVs. Credit: Zipline

In 2014, Rinaudo traveled to Ifakara Health Institute in Tanzania, where he met a grad student working to digitalize part of the country’s medical supply chain. The student had built a mobile alert system that enabled health workers to text requests for emergency blood and medical supplies for critically ill patients. However, owing to the country’s difficult topography and its slow and inefficient medical supply chain, there was no way for the government to deliver many of these materials.

Browsing the growing backlog of medical supply requests that the student had collected, Rinaudo says he realized he was looking at a “database of death.” More than 2 billion people around the world lack adequate access to essential medical products, according to the World Health Organization, often due to challenging terrain and gaps in infrastructure. Over 2.9 million children under age five die every year and up to 150,000 pregnancy-related deaths result from lack of access to safe blood.

Robotic aircraft could solve the problem. Rinaudo established Zipline and moved to develop the Zip, a first-of-its-kind drone delivery service, as the final link in the medical supply chain for problematic geographies.

An Inside Job

Zipline’s team of 60 includes seasoned aerospace engineers recruited from companies like SpaceX, Google, Boeing, and NASA. “They’ve been drawn to the mission,” Rinaudo says, “using cutting-edge technology to save lives.”

The fixed-wing aircraft that Zipline has developed are capable of flying farther on less power and in more variable weather than the multirotor machines typically referred to as drones. The Zips can fly 10 times the distance of existing commercial UAVs. The company has built the robotic systems for launching and landing their Zips, as well as the algorithms in the flight computer and air traffic control software, in-house. “Off-the-shelf quadcopters can’t get the job done,” Rinaudo explains. “We need a purpose-driven vehicle capable of making deliveries at a national scale.”

Rwanda’s Leap of Faith

Zipline began its deliveries in Rwanda, which is known as the country of a thousand hills. The topography makes for a striking landscape but challenging logistics. “The government was ready to step forward and make a national commitment to expanding healthcare access with technology,” Rinaudo says. Because Rwanda is one of the most densely populated countries in Africa, with a land area the size of Maryland, Zipline could serve almost half of the nation’s population from its single distribution center. (Ultimately, the Rwandan government has said it wants to ensure that delivery of essential medical supplies is no more than 30 minutes away from all 12 million Rwandans.)

“Millions of people across the world die each year because they can’t get the medicine they need when they need it. It’s a problem in both developed and developing countries.We can help solve it with on-demand drone delivery.”

Zipline launched its first blood drops from Rwanda’s capital, Kigali, late in 2016. The company flies 15 planes (which weigh about 14 kilograms fully loaded) simultaneously, using data provided by GPS and Rwanda’s Civil Aviation Authority to guide the flights. Powered by lithium-ion battery packs and twin electric motors, the Zips don’t have to be refueled.

To make deliveries, the planes fly about 40 feet above what Zipline calls the “mailbox” near a clinic (an area approximately the size of two parking spots) and drop the packages to it. The clinics do not need to install any infrastructure. To begin service to a new site, Zipline performs a survey flight to map the area and can start deliveries within two days.

One of Zipline’s central innovations is the aircraft landing system at its distribution centers. “We need to take off and land from the same place with limited space,” says Rinaudo. Mimicking the wire and tailhook systems the U.S. Navy uses to snag jets onto its carriers, Zipline engineers developed a pair of robotic arms that hold a wire. On approach, the plane sends a signal to the robotic arms, triggering them to raise the wire to the right height for the plane to snag it before stopping on an inflated landing mat nearby. The solution enables the planes to decelerate from 100 kilometers an hour to zero in half a second with no runway.

Developing the technology to operate and land the UAVs safely and effectively was easy, Rinaudo says, compared to integrating with Rwanda’s national health system. There were challenges with back-end systems integration. Zipline has also had to consider local air traffic and health regulations and develop education and training for distribution center workers. “We work hand in hand with military and civil aviation authorities, the national blood center, clinics around the country, hospital staff, and members of the surrounding community,” Rinaudo says. “All of them have a key role to play. And building those relationships while strengthening the overall operation takes time.”

Reverse Innovation

A healthcare professional collects air-delivered supplies. Credit: Zipline

Last summer, the government of Tanzania signed a deal with Zipline to develop the largest national drone delivery service in the world with four distribution centers and more than 100 drones. The initiative aims to serve 10 million Tanzanians (approximately the population of the U.S. state of Georgia). Zips in Tanzania will deliver not just blood but also emergency vaccines, HIV medications, antimalarial drugs, and critical medical supplies like sutures and IV tubes.

Although Zipline is focused on its East African operations, its approach could prove valuable anywhere. “Millions of people across the world die each year because they can’t get the medicine they need when they need it. It’s a problem in both developed and developing countries,” Rinaudo says. “We can help solve it with on-demand drone delivery. And African nations are showing the world how.”

The company has worked with the U.S. government to explore tests of medical supply drone delivery to remote communities such as Smith Island in Maryland, Pyramid Lake Tribal Health Clinic in Nevada, and the San Juan Islands in Washington. It plans to expand within the United States in 2018.

Taking Drones to New Heights

Rinaudo’s focus on using drones to deliver items that have a significant impact on someone’s life has attracted prominent funders, including Sequoia Capital, Google Ventures, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, and former Yahoo CEO Jerry Yang.

It’s not clear yet whether drone delivery cuts costs. A report published in 2016 by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center noted that using UAVs to deliver vaccines in low- and middle-income countries may save money and improve vaccination rates. Zipline executives have reported that its deliveries for routine restocking are more expensive than standard trips by road, but responding to emergencies costs less.

To evaluate Zipline’s impact, global health researchers from the Ifakara Health Institute and the University of Glasgow will assess how deliveries from one of its planned distribution centers affect the clinics the company serves.

The value in lives saved is clear, says Rinaudo, and that is fueling development. Costs will come down over time, he adds, and the practical use cases within healthcare will expand. Eventually, Rinaudo envisions, Zipline’s approach could be practical for a range of possibilities beyond medical supplies. Meanwhile, the success of companies like his could serve as a springboard for a new category of aircraft more reliable and durable than cheap consumer drones but less expensive than multimillion dollar unmanned military aircraft. D!

Stephanie Overby

About Stephanie Overby

A Boston-based journalist, Stephanie Overby has covered everything from Wall Street to weddings during her career. She is currently focused on the implications of digital transformation.