Zipline's speedy drones may be used for US medical product deliveries

Zipline is a drone company that has been saving lives in Rwanda with a pilot program that delivers blood, plasma and other medical supplies to clinics in rural areas. Since its pilot program started in 2016, the company's drones have flown a total of more than 185,000 miles and the blood deliveries account for 20 percent of Rwanda's blood supply in rural areas. The successful test has now been expanded to Tanzania, and now Zipline may offer services in the US starting this year.

 Image via Zipline

Image via Zipline

The company's first-generation drones were able to handle about a hundred orders per day in Rwanda. Orders for medical supplies come into a central dispatch center by text or phone, and the order is loaded into the drone by a staffer, who then scans a QR code on the order that lets the drone figure out the best route to its destination. The drones fly themselves to the recipients, the drop the supplies by parachute. The drone then flies itself back to the Zipline center, where it is retrieved using a tail hook that catches on a line in the air.

Zipline has announced a second-generation drone that's now being touted as the world's fastest commercial drone. The new model carries payloads of up to four pounds, can reach speeds of up to 80 miles per hour, and has a range of about 100 miles. The company hopes that the new model will allow the Rwanda center to fulfill up to 500 orders a day. 

The plans Zipline has to bring its services to the US may be dependent on the FAA's UAS Integration Pilot Program, which aims to develop a framework for operating commercial drone fleets in the country. The program is expected to be unveiled in May, at which time the FAA will also announce a list of companies that will be able to take advantage of the program. Zipline is hopeful that it will be one of the first to join, and CEO Keller Rinaudo says that the company is "working closely with a number of different states to demonstrate medical product delivery in suburban and rural areas."