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. Jeremy Hsu is a science and tech journalist based in New York. Sign up to get Backchannel's weekly newsletter. In October 2016, Rwandan crowds cheered the launch and landing of delivery drones developed and operated by Zipline, a San Francisco-based startup.
JOHANNESBURG – At first, the drone took some explaining. Anxious villagers buzzed with rumors of a new blood-sucking thing that would fly above their homes. The truth was more practical: A United Nations project would explore whether a small unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV, could deliver HIV test samples more efficiently than land transport in rural Malawi. Once understanding dawned and work began, young students and their teachers would spill out of the nearby school, cheering, each time they heard the drone approaching. "It was very exciting," UNICEF official Judith Sherman said.
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.
Crowded airspace and complicated regulations have so far stalled drone deliveries in the United States, but in Rwanda -- where the flight paths are clearer and the red tape a little thinner -- drones are ready for takeoff courtesy of a partnership between UPS, Zipline and Gavi. The Rwandan government has signed a deal with the California-based robotics company Zipline to make its country the first ever to use a drone delivery system on a national scale. Zipline is partnering with the UPS Foundation and Gavi, the nonprofit vaccine alliance, to execute its plan to make up to 150 drone deliveries per day of live-saving blood to 21 health facilities across a broad swath of the western portion of Rwanda. The plan combines Zipline's resilient drone design with the supply chain expertise of UPS and Gavi's experience delivering vaccines to all parts of the world. The deliveries are promised to make it to the designated health facilities in around 30 minutes -- orders of magnitude faster than it takes now.