Drones From Bay Area Startup to Deliver Vaccines in Africa


May 09–A Bay Area robotics startup plans to use drones to deliver vaccines and blood for transfusions to hard-to-reach areas of Rwanda — with some help from UPS.

The shipping giant’s charitable organization, the UPS Foundation, has awarded an $800,000 grant to Zipline International of Half Moon Bay and vaccine distribution organization Gavi to start the drone project in July. The companies announced the partnership Monday.

With drones, “it does not matter if there are washed out roads, washed out bridges, jungles or mountains in the way,” Zipline CEO Keller Rinaudo told reporters Thursday before demonstrating how the company’s computer-controlled drones take off, drop packages by parachute and return.

Amazon, Walmart and Google have generated attention-grabbing headlines and a fair amount of skepticism by announcing plans to use hovering quadcopter drones to deliver packages to customers.

But the 2-year-old Zipline is quietly building a fleet of fixed-wing, airplane-style drones that can fly to remote locations in countries where motorcycle or truck deliveries can be difficult.

Zipline’s first customer is the Rwandan government, which seeks as many as 150 deliveries per day of blood to transfusion facilities in the East African country.

Rinaudo said he and his co-founders switched from their original idea of building “cool consumer robots” when they discovered a loftier purpose during a trip to a medical center in Tanzania.

“In the same way that mobile phones were able to leapfrog the existence of landlines in these countries, we think that this technology can leapfrog the absence of roads,” Rinaudo said. “And if it’s something that people are depending on (for) their lives, we need to get it there. And if we can do so cost-effectively, why on earth wouldn’t we?”

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