AFRICA’S DELIVERY DRONES ARE ZIPPING PAST THE US
Tech visionaries may tantalize us with visions of instant gratification via drone delivery, but Silicon Valley has yet to deliver on such promises. Meanwhile, halfway around the globe in an African country barely the size of Maryland, drone deliveries have already taken flight—with more serious cargo than burritos.
In October 2016, Rwandan crowds cheered the launch and landing of delivery drones developed and operated by Zipline, a San Francisco-based startup. The locals call the Zipline drones “sky ambulances” as they soar overhead and swoop in low to drop off lifesaving blood supplies by parachute to remote hospitals and clinics located hours outside the Rwandan capital of Kigali. That may sound very different from the PR circus surrounding Google drones testing delivery of Chipotle fare to Virginia Tech college students—and it is. But Zipline and similar delivery drone pioneers have also learned some valuable lessons about what a large-scale delivery drone operation can look like—and whether Silicon Valley can ever realize the dream of drone delivery to your doorstep.
“Countries like Rwanda can make decisions fast and can implement new technologies in concert with new regulations fast, so we’re now in a position where the US is trying to follow Rwanda,” says Keller Rinaudo, CEO and co-founder of Zipline. “They’re not trying to catch up to US infrastructure. They’re just leapfrogging roads and trucks and motorcycles and going to a new type of infrastructure.”
In early 2018, Zipline will officially kick off the world’s largest delivery drone service in Tanzania, Rwanda’s much larger neighbor. The Tanzanian government aims to use Zipline’s delivery drones to make up to 2,000 deliveries of medical supplies per day. Those deliveries of supplies such as blood products, medicines, and snake antivenom will go to more than 1,000 hospitals and clinics serving 10 million people. An operation at this scale will dwarf anything previously attempted in the drone-delivery universe.
The Tanzania launch will fulfill the dream that led Rinaudo to found Zipline in the first place. In 2014, he met a graduate student named Zac Mtema while visiting the Ifakara Health Institute in Tanzania. Mtema had created a mobile alert system that could help doctors and nurses text emergency requests for medicines and vaccines to the government. There was just one problem: The government had no way of quickly delivering those medicines and vaccines via the country’s existing roads and distribution networks.
Today, Mtema is helping the Ifakara Health Institute evaluate how Zipline’s service affects health outcomes in Tanzania.
Quantifying lives saved and medical conditions treated could go a long way toward convincing Zipline’s deep-pocketed backers in the international aid and development community—such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation—that delivery drones can become a global force for humanitarian good. The for-profit startup has already raised at least $41 million in funding from investors.
By focusing on carrying critical medical supplies, Zipline has gotten off the ground faster and in a bigger way than other, more mundane delivery pioneers. It’s a lot easier to convince regulators to tolerate the potential safety risks of delivery drones falling out of the sky when those aircraft are making lifesaving deliveries to hospitals rather than carrying shoes or pizza.