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WATCH: Fleet of Drones to Deliver HIV Drugs Across Tanzania


Commercial drone delivery is both exciting and terrifying, but in two East African nations, it's saving lives. 

If not for drone delivery, HIV drugs would be otherwise unavailable, if it weren't for the innovative breakthrough of drone technology.

California-based drone company Zipline is launching the world's largest drone delivery network by early 2018 with a fleet of 120 drones capable of 2,000 deliveries of HIV medications, blood transfusion materials and vaccinations per day. The government of Tanzania made the announcement on August 24.

In Rwanda, Zipline has successfully completed 1,400 drone flights and 2,600 units of blood between 12 clinics throughout Rwanda. That project began about a year ago. About one fourth of those deliveries were in response to emergency situations. Zipline's initial goal was to put all of Rwanda's some 12 million citizens within a 15-30 minute delivery window of any medical product they might need, beginning with HIV medication. Tanzania, however, is 35 times larger than Rwanda, with 364,900 square miles to cover with drones. The average delivery time in Rwanda was about 20 minutes.

Keller Rinaudo, CEO of Zipline, conceived the idea as a student in Tanzania in 2014, and is well aware of clinics running out of stock of precious HIV medications. “Our goal is to completely eliminate stock-outs, [an issue] which has been one of the biggest challenges in global public health for the past 50 years,” Rinaudo told Newsweek. Visits to Tanzania also made an impact on Zipline cofounder William Hetzler, who realized the company could potentially save lives.

Rinaudo's interest in cutting-edge technology is evident in a TED talks presentation. But since then, his focus has been less about technology and more about changing the world. With funding from Stanford University among other investors, it's an exciting project.

The drone network, according to plan, will begin at four distribution centers including one in Dodoma, the capitol of Tanzania. Each distribution center will house 30 drones, each capable of carrying up to 1.5 kilograms of cargo for up to 160 kilometer (100-mile) round trips. The drones fly at speeds of 100 km (62 miles) per hour and up to 70 miles per hour.

In Tanzania, researchers from the University of Glasgow and Tanzania’s Ifakara Health Institute will evaluate the drone delivery service's overall impact. According to the Britain’s Department for International Development, another Zipline backer, the drones will cut delivery costs by $58,000 per year. Zipline has worked with GAVI, UPS, USAID and other countries in East Africa.

The terrifying thought of mass drone delivery on a commercial scale is already quickly becoming a reality. Drones have been utilized to deliver everything from beer to medical cannabis and cookies. Amazon recently obtained a patent on July 25 to deliver parachuting packages of products. Companies have toyed with the idea of using the receipt for the parachute. But nobody with a fleet of drones has taken on a more noble effort. Zipline's plan is to drop the packages to the ground from about 35 feet. Zipline's packages will have biodegradable paper parachutes to break the fall.

In a much larger nation like the United States, securing the needed airspace with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is entirely different story. Per the FAA rules, commercial drones weighing less than 25 kilograms must stay in the visual line of sight by the pilot during daylight or twilight hours.

But Rinaudo said in a podcast last year with Recode that he hopes the United States is taking a close look. Zipline could potentially expand into the United States with a little work. “We have exciting news on this coming soon,” he said.

The future of HIV healthcare in East Africa may include drones on a massive scale. The problem of getting HIV medication from point A to point B is a problem shared all over the world. The inevitable disruption of drones in the delivery world could happen the way Uber took over taxi rides. It will provide a snapshot of what could happen by utilizing drones in other parts of the world.

Zipline already has the know-how from the company's experience in Rwanda, and the service could quickly take off.

Watch the video below.


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Benjamin M. Adams