A Drone to Save the World

Developing countries are skipping over roads and going straight to drones for providing health care

Eric Watson loads a Zipline drone during a demonstration (Olga Khazan / The Atlantic)

BAY AREA, California—“No chatter for flight team concentration please,” said Eric Watson, a member of the flight-operations team for Zipline, a startup that makes drones.

Watson and I stood on a windy sea cliff along with Zipline’s co-founder, Keller Rinaudo, whom I was peppering with questions about his young company. With Watson’s warning, we fell silent as two Zipline employees loaded the drone into a launcher. After a countdown, its propellers spun into action. It shot off into the sky, a high-pitched whir in its wake.

Rinaudo started Zipline five years ago, but he’s only now publicly unveiling the business. By signing contracts directly with the governments of developing countries, Zipline plans to use its drone fleet to deliver medications to rural clinics all over the developing world. It says it will start with Rwanda in July.

Rinaudo got the idea a few years ago on a trip to Tanzania. He met a researcher who had built a database that allowed health workers to send text alerts whenever they lacked blood or other medical supplies.

There were hundreds of dying patients popping up in the spreadsheet, Rinaudo said, but there was little the researcher could do to solve the problem. The area’s roads were in poor condition, and some would wash out entirely in the rainy season. Trucks couldn’t reach the remote clinics fast enough. Even if the clinics stockpiled plasma, it risked spoiling during power outages.

“Unfortunately, it was basically a database of death,” Rinaudo said. “Every single one of those people probably died because they didn’t have a simple medical product.”

Rinaudo and his co-founders, Will Hetzler and Keenan Wyrobek, set out to find a way to deliver medications to remote clinics and hospitals at a moment's notice. Each Zip costs about the same as a motorcycle—except unlike a motorcycle, it will have no need for roads. Clinic staff can text a central distribution center, where workers will pack the needed medications in a box. The box gets spring-loaded into a Zip, along with a paper parachute. The Zip takes off for the health clinic, where it air-drops its payload and returns to the distribution center, landing without the need for a runway.

Once in the air, the Zips follow specific paths that can be tracked and changed via a tablet app. Zipline says each drone will soon be making 50 to 150 such deliveries a day to 21 clinics across the Western half of Rwanda. Each distribution hub will house about a dozen Zips, which take only half an hour to fly up to 45 miles.*

Keller Rinaudo, Zipline’s co-founder, holds the package after its delivery (Olga Khazan / The Atlantic)

Several companies are relying on drones, a technology typically associated with surveillance or stealth war, in order to bring medicine and aid to developing countries. Many of Africa’s remote corners skipped landlines entirely and went straight for cell phones, and some experts believe drones might follow a similar path. Doctors Without Borders has experimented with using drones from Matternet to transport lab samples from far-flung health centers in Papua New Guinea. Others, like Wings for Aid, focus on disaster relief in addition to medicines.

The drone push isn’t limited to Africa. Rinaudo recently learned Spanish so he could pitch Zipline to another government official. (He declined to reveal which one).

Rwanda has been especially drone friendly: The architecture firm Foster + Partners is reportedly building a “drone port in Rwanda specifically focused on cargo drones. As support for the idea, the firm pointed out that only a third of Africans live within two kilometers of a road that functions year-round. As of this fall, the country was still drafting airspace regulations for drones, according to a report from the Rwandan New Times newspaper. The risk of collision with airplanes, while low, is real.

Another risk is accidentally zipping into a war zone, should the companies expand into less-stable countries, said Hans Heerkens, the chairman of the drone-research firm Platform Unmanned Cargo Aircraft and an assistant professor at the University of Twente in the Netherlands.

“Wings for Aid, for example, cannot make its drone too big because a bigger drone will be seen as a threat by rebels or guerrillas,” he said. That, in turn, limits how much cargo it can carry. (Zipline’s drones are roughly the size of a large dog and can carry three pounds.)

Bilal Zuberi, a partner at Lux Capital who has invested in other drone companies, but not Zipline, said the “downsides of tying any business too closely with government include long sales cycles, bureaucracy, and potential for corruption.”

Hetzler seemed unfazed by the prospect of hitching his business to governments that, despite their zeal for innovation, don’t function quite like America’s does.

“Working in emerging markets, you have a little bit more risk, but the growth potential is higher,” he said.

Major American companies, including Amazon and Google, are working on their own drone-delivery programs. Similarly, some of the more humanitarian drone companies might be using aid as an entry into delivering consumer goods. “I have no doubt that [some of them] will expand, or someone else will see their success and start doing that,” Heerkens said.

For now, Hetzler and Rinaudo said Zipline is solely focused on medical supplies in developing countries.

“I can live without a drone delivering my soccer cleats, but for a mom experiencing postpartum hemorrhaging, a delivery of blood is the difference between life and death,” Hetzler said.

The Zipline engineers hope their Zips convey a softer image than most drones. They even drew cheerful blue eyes on each plane to help it seem friendlier.

As I was leaving, Watson jogged out to ask me one last question. Overhead, the drone had opened its belly, catapulting its package to the ground with a whoosh.

“Did it seem scary?” he asked.

* This article originally misstated the speed of the Zip. It can fly about 45 miles in 30 minutes. We regret the error.