Eight-year-old boy bitten by dog. Two-year-old child with severe anemia. Mother, age 24, bleeding severely at childbirth.
Entries like these popped up as Keller Rinaudo browsed a database of health emergencies during a 2014 visit to Tanzania. It was “a lightbulb moment,” says the CEO and co-founder of the California drone startup Zipline.
Rinaudo was visiting a scientist at Ifakara Health Institute who had created the database to track nationwide medical emergencies. Using cell phones, health workers would send a text message whenever a patient needed blood or other critical supplies. Trouble is, while the system collected real-time information about dying patients, the east African country’s rough terrain and poor supply chain often kept them from getting timely help. “We were essentially looking at a database of death,” Rinaudo says.
That Tanzania trip motivated his company to spend the next three years building what they envisioned as “the other half of that system — where you know a patient is having a medical emergency and can immediately send the product needed to save that person’s life,” Rinaudo says.
Today the story comes full circle as Tanzania’s government makes a special announcement: In early 2018 the nation will start using Zipline drones for on-demand delivery of blood, vaccines, medications and other supplies such as sutures and IV tubes.
Last fall, Zipline deployed 15 drones serving 21 clinics from a single base in a smaller neighboring country, Rwanda. The delivery operation planned for Tanzania would be the world’s largest — 120 drones at four bases serving more than 10 million people at 1,000 clinics across the country. Zipline’s 30-pound electric drones fly 68 mph to health centers up to 50 miles away. The drone service costs about the same amount as delivery using traditional road vehicles, says Rinaudo, a Harvard graduate who built DNA computers inside human cells and constructed a rock-climbing wall in a dorm basement before setting his focus on drones.
Tanzania’s drone delivery service, in partnership with the country’s ministry of health, is set to launch in its capital city, Dodoma, in January. Three more distribution centers will be added in the country’s northwestern corner and Southern Highlands later in the year.
Other countries, even the U.S., are taking note. In addition to its Africa initiatives, Zipline is trying to bring drone delivery service to rural U.S. communities and Native American reservations.
“Most people think of new, advanced technology starting in the U.S. and trickling down to Africa,” he says. “This is a total overturning of that paradigm.”