I had the opportunity to visit Zipline’s field-testing site in San Francisco last year after the company participated in an Experts Meeting on Humanitarian UAVs (Aerial Robotics) that I co-organized at MIT in October 2015. The company has finally just gone public about their good work in Rwanda, so I’m at last able to blog about it on iRevolutions.
Zipline’s Mission is to deliver critical medical products to health centers and hospitals that are either difficult or impossible to reach via traditional modes of transportation.
As I had signed an NDA, I was (and still am) only allowed to discuss information that is public, which was basically nothing until today. So below is a summary of what is at last publicly known about Zipline’s pioneering aerial robotics efforts in Rwanda.
- Zipline Fleet: 15 fixed-wing aerial robots (UAVs) in Rwanda capable of operating in 50kph winds
- Weight of each platform: 10-kg.
- Power: Battery-operated twin-electric motors.
- Payload capacity: up to 1.5kg.
- Cargo: Blood and essential medicines (small vials) to begin with. Eventually cargo will extend to lifesaving vaccines, treatments for HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis, etc.
- Range: Up to 120 km.
- Flight Plans: Pre-programmed and monitored on the ground via tablets. Individual plans are stored in SIM cards.
- Flight Navigation: GPS using the country’s cellular network
- Delivery Mechanism: Fully autonomous, low altitude drop via simple paper parachute. Onboard computers determine appropriate parameters (taking into account winds, etc) to ensure that the cargo accurately lands on it’s dedicated delivery site called a “mailbox”.
- Delivery Sites: Dedicated drop sites at 21 health facilities that can carry out blood transfusions. These cover more than half of Rwanda.
- Takeoff Sites: Modified shipping containers located next to existing medical warehouses.
- Delivery Time: Each cargo is delivered within 1 hour. The aerial robot takes about 1/2 hour to cover 145 km.
- Flight Frequency: Eventually up to 150 flights per day.
- Regulatory Approval: Direct agreements already secured with the Government of Rwanda and country’s Civil Aviation Authority.
This is very cool. Obviously very carefully worked out and operating at scale with 21 dedicated drop sites covering more than half of Rwanda. Watch the short video, these are chunky, no-nonsense fixed wing birds that totally reminded me of WWII military gliders.