Drones Will Soon Be Dropping Medicines to Save Lives in Rwanda

Drones Will Soon Be Dropping Medicines to Save Lives in Rwanda
UPS for the Logistics, Zipline for the Deliveries
A Common Problem All Over Africa
Strategic Locations Reach Most of Rwanda
Can't See, but It Knows Exactly Where It's Going
Launch, Recovery Sites All Fit Into Standard Shipping Containers
Drone Takes Shape in the Shop
A Small Box That Can Save Someone's Life
Zipline Team Writes Virtually All Its Own Software
Ready for a Launch
And Away She Goes
Payload Delivered
Just the Start of a Worldwide Drone Program
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Drones Will Soon Be Dropping Medicines to Save Lives in Rwanda

A new project plans to use drones to deliver life-saving medicines, blood and vaccines to reduce juvenile mortality and the spread of malaria, among other health care issues.

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UPS for the Logistics, Zipline for the Deliveries

Ed Martinez (left), CEO of the UPS Foundation, which has allocated $800,000 to the drone project, and Zipline founder and CEO Keller Rinaudo explain the goals of the drone medicine operation. UPS already has the ecosystem in place to move time-sensitive items such as blood and vaccines in cold transit. Zipline's engineers build the drones and the takeoff and recovery systems; create the delivery routes; update GPS and other software; and run the delivery operations on-location as needed. Gavi CEO Dr. Seth Berkley attended this conference remotely from Geneva.

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A Common Problem All Over Africa

Because of very few paved roadways, most of the giant continent of Africa is inaccessible by land vehicles at various times of the year. Frequent monsoons and hurricanes leave roads looking like this. Thus, delivery of life-saving medicines and vaccines must be done by air—trucks, autos and motorcycles can never accomplish the job that needs to be done.

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Strategic Locations Reach Most of Rwanda

Using 20 Zipline launching locations, called nests, the project can reach about 11 million of the 12 million Rwandans. A typical Zipline drone mission lasts less than 30 minutes from launch to recovery. The vehicle will guide itself to the drop location, circle it once or twice to get an accurate reading on the wind, drop the payload within a space about the size of three parking spaces and then head immediately back to its nest, or base.

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Can't See, but It Knows Exactly Where It's Going

A Zipline drone can fly for about 2.5 hours on its two batteries, has a range of about 120 km and can reach speeds of 100 km/hr, or 60 mph. It flies between 100 feet and 400 feet high and can barely be heard as it moves overhead. If flying in a conflicted area, the drones are very difficult to shoot down because they are such a small, fast target, Rinaudo said.

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Launch, Recovery Sites All Fit Into Standard Shipping Containers

Rinaudo, being interviewed by Benny Evangelista of the San Francisco Chronicle, stands in front of one of the standard 16-foot-long shipping containers that are used to transport the launch and recovery equipment. Two of these can make a "nest" that can be run by only four people.

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Drone Takes Shape in the Shop

Zipline drone-building team leader Ryan Oksenhorn shows one of the vehicles to reporters. The twin-engine, battery-powered craft has a wingspan of 6 feet, is constructed of light but extremely strong carbon-based material, and can be redeployed within minutes after a battery change.

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A Small Box That Can Save Someone's Life

A Zipline staff member demonstrates how the payload, including a small parachute, is packed into the drone vehicle. Testing for better parachutes is an ongoing pursuit by the team; they need to be inexpensive, recyclable and able to deploy effectively. "Even if a chute doesn't open in time on the drop, the payload is packaged carefully so that it can survive even a hard landing," Rinaudo said.

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Zipline Team Writes Virtually All Its Own Software

Zipline software team member Jeremy Schwartz explains the development process: Each of the red and white boxes contains all the same hardware and software as the actual drones, and they are tested as if they are on an actual mission. Team members track them in testing on a special iPad app they've written using Google Earth and other components. In fact, virtually all the software in the entire project was coded from scratch; the team started with a set of open-source and other components but found it inadequate for their needs.

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Ready for a Launch

From its secret site in the Santa Cruz Mountains south of San Francisco, Zipline gets ready for another drone launch. The catapult unit is easily portable inside a standard 16-foot-long shipping container.

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And Away She Goes

The drone's launch is impressively fast, thanks to its custom-built, compressed-air catapult. Reporters were not allowed to photograph the recovery operation because it uses proprietary methodology.

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Payload Delivered

Rinaudo journeys out to the drop location several hundred feet away and opens the cardboard box with its precious blood and medicine. It easily survived a rougher-than-usual drop due to a parachute malfunction.

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Just the Start of a Worldwide Drone Program

The Rwandan project is expected to be only Phase 1 of a global network of drones that will be used to deliver precious medicines and vaccines to previously inaccessible parts of the world.

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