When I first visited Zipline, two years ago, the startup was operating out of a pile of shipping containers, in a cow-filled field on the Pacific Coast, in Northern California. Now, when I round the corner on the dirt road leading to the startup's new test range, I'm met by what looks like a prototype lunar base dotted with stretched white tents and hulking containers. Tall metal trusses point into the sky, topped by spiky metal ball-shaped lightning conductors. There is also a row of "Zipline Parking Only" signs, although I haven't seen anything but cows for miles around. This is where Zipline is testing what it calls the fastest commercial delivery drone in the world.
While Amazon and United Parcel Service pour considerable resources into finding ways of using drones to deliver such things as shoes and dog treats, Zipline has been saving lives in Rwanda since October 2016 with drones that deliver blood. Zipline's autonomous fixed-wing drones now form an integral part of Rwanda's medical-supply infrastructure, transporting blood products from a central distribution center to hospitals across the country. And in 2018, Zipline's East African operations will expand to include Tanzania, a much larger country.
You can hear the drone before it's visible, whining like a mosquito above the hillside grounds of Rwanda's Kabgayi District Hospital. Emerging through a patch of fog, roughly 100 feet in the air, the small plane quickly disappears again, circling in an oblong pattern as it descends toward an altitude low enough to make its drop. After a period of silence, it's suddenly back, swooping over the roof of Kabgayi's accident ward to drop its payload on the driveway with a thud. On the ground lies a red cardboard container, roughly the size of a shoebox, attached to a parachute made of wax paper and biodegradable tape. The contraption may resemble a children's art project, but its contents are lifesaving.
Delivery drones are real and they're operating on a national level, but they're not dropping off impulse purchases, and some of the most important applications are not in the United States. Zipline, a Bay Area startup, inked a deal with the government of Rwanda in 2016 and now uses small, autonomous planes to deliver medical supplies, and in particular blood, to rural communities across the African country. "It's a pretty cool paradigm shift for people who think all technological revolution is going on in US, and it'll trickle down to poor countries," says Zipline CEO, Keller Rinaudo, presenting his vision for drone deliveries on stage at the WIRED25 summit in San Francisco on Monday. "This is the opposite of that." Amazon created an internet-wide buzz when it announced it wanted to start delivering online shopping via drone, in a 60 Minutes interview in 2013.