Zipline’s blood-delivery drones set to launch in Tanzania

Californian tech company, Zipline, is using delivery drones to bring hope and medical supplies to emergency patients in Tanzania.

Using delivery drones to drop off packages has become almost standard practice for many businesses. In fact, Amazon recently patented plans for what seem to be delivery stations designed entirely with drones in mind. However, in Rwanda, soon to be followed by Tanzania, delivery drones are being used with startling efficiency to save lives.


Zipline first launched its service in Rwanda in late 2016. The idea seemed simple: get blood to the people who need it, as quickly as possible. Rwanda already had a service in place monitoring emergency patients and what supplies they needed urgently. The problem with this system was that transporting life-saving materials such as blood could take hours that emergency patients didn’t always have to spare. So, Zipline partnered with the Rwandan government and, in conjunction, they created a fast, efficient and reliable delivery system. When a patient is in need of blood which isn’t available where they’re being treated, Zipline receives an order transmitted via text. The blood is loaded into a drone or, in many cases, several drones, which are then launched and sent off with their payload.

What’s revolutionary about this process is not just that it’s a faster way of delivering blood or medical supplies. It actually makes sure that the supplies go exactly where they’re needed with no waste. Because hospitals can’t predict what blood they’ll need or when they’ll need it, Zipline can store such vital supplies at one location within a given area and send out necessary resources on demand. This prevents materials from expiring in one location while they may be needed in another and allows for a great simplification of many medical systems within Rwanda.

Zipline’s drones are lightweight and can carry only 3 pounds each, but with their fleet, they’ve reportedly managed to make 1,400 deliveries in Rwanda since October. What’s more, the company’s delivery drones have an average journey time of 15 minutes, much faster than conventional methods, and their ability to travel regardless of road or traffic conditions has made them invaluable during the rainy season. For safety reasons, and because of the drones’ design, their deliveries are made via parachute drops, with the drones staying airborne until they return to base. Zipline says that they can receive a returning drone, change its batteries, load it with new cargo and have it ready to go in under five minutes, meaning that they can be sent on their way at the drop of a hat in response to emergencies.

Zipline's delivery drone drops off its cargo without landing, allowing it to make its next journey as soon as it needs to.
Zipline’s delivery drone drops off its cargo without landing, allowing it to make its next journey as soon as it needs to.

Now, it seems, Tanzania is keen to make the most of Zipline’s unprecedented service. While Tanzania is a much larger country than Rwanda, Zipline is confident that they are up to the task. The first distribution centre is planned for the city of Dodoma, with others to follow as they expand. Each centre is expected to be able to perform up to 500 deliveries daily if required, delivering not just blood, but other medical essentials, like vaccines and medication. In order for this undertaking to succeed, Zipline won’t just need a vast number of drones. They’ll also have to coordinate with the Tanzanian government and organisations like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Human Development Impact Fund, and the Saving Lives at Birth initiative. It will also take some time for medical officials within Tanzania to adapt to the new system, but if Rwanda is any indication, Zipline can smoothly become an integral part of the nation’s emergency response infrastructure.

Zipline delivery drone ready to launch.
A Zipline delivery drone ready to be launched on its journey.

Tanzania is due to get the first of these medical centres early next year. If the system takes off there, perhaps other countries will follow Rwanda’s and Tanzania’s example, using modern technology to save lives.

(Video shows Zipline’s delivery drone system as it prepared to launch in Rwanda in 2016)

Ronan Daly

Ronan Daly is a staff writer for My Good Planet who specialises in Technology and Science. With a Masters Degree in English, and over a decade's experience as a teacher and writer, Ronan has brought a breezy, learned style to My Good Planet, making occasionally complex material accessible and understandable to all.

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