Timely delivery of essential medical supplies can be extremely difficult in many parts of the world. Undeveloped infrastructure and treacherous terrain can render speedy delivery of vaccines and emergency blood supplies difficult if not almost impossible.

Harvard graduates Keller Rinaudo and William Hetzler were looking for a project with meaningful social impact following the introduction of a robotic pet in their first venture. Working with Keenan Wyrobek, a researcher building a text-message health surveillance system, Rinaudo and Hetzler developed the concept for Zipline. Part of the inspiration for the company came from the stories Wyrobek’s research network uncovered such as snakebites, hemorrhaging following childbirth, and suspected rabies. In too many cases, timely delivery of necessary supplies was either logistically or financially impossible.

The three developed a dual-motor drone that could deliver a 1.5-kilogram (a bit more than 3 pounds) payload. In determining where to test Zipline, Rwanda emerged as a perfect location. The country has a tightly packed population of 12 million in an area the size of Maryland replete with transportation difficulties, especially during a twice-yearly rainy season. A single drone site could reach nearly half the country’s population.

In conjunction with the government of Rwanda and the country’s civil aviation authority, the Silicon Valley-based Zipline started a distribution center. Zipline drones can now deliver blood supplies in 15 minutes that previously took at least four hours by four-wheel drive vehicles. The process starts with a medical supply request via text messages from remote clinics to the Zipline center. The supplies are packed in temperature-protective wrapping and dispatched within minutes of receiving the request. The thirteen drones used in the pilot project can fly at speeds up to 100 kph, guided by operators at the center. When the drone reaches the clinic area, the supplies are dropped with attached parachutes and land within a five-meter diameter target area.

Zipline’s center currently operates 24/7, in all weather, and has a daily capacity of 500 deliveries. The range is within 75 kilometers for a maximum 150-kilometer round trip. The project started with blood supplies, but the next step is to ramp up to deliver emergency rabies vaccines, medication to treat HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria, contraceptives, and field diagnostic kits.