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Why Rwanda Is Going to Get the World’s First Network of Delivery Drones

Shuttling blood and medicines via drone to remote locations throughout the country could improve health and save lives.
April 4, 2016

A startup called Zipline will use a fleet of long-distance drones to airdrop precious blood and medicines to remote medical facilities across Rwanda. The potentially life-saving project hints at the potential for unmanned aerial vehicles to revolutionize the delivery of some goods. But it also highlights the fact that drone delivery currently makes most sense only in extreme situations.

Zipline is working with the Rwandan government to create a network of delivery drones that will ferry medical supplies across the country. The network will be capable of making 50 to 150 deliveries per day, using a fleet of 15 aircraft, each with twin electric motors and an almost eight-foot wingspan. The unmanned planes will use GPS to navigate, and will airdrop supplies before returning to the landing strip from which they launched.

It might seem odd that one of the poorest countries in the world should be the first to get a network of delivery drones, especially when companies in the U.S. have been talking up the potential of drones to deliver ordinary goods to households. But strict regulations, safety concerns, and technical challenges make routine package delivery by drone seem far-fetched at the moment.

It’s much easier to make a case for using drones to high-value goods to remote locations. And so the Zipline project is a great demonstration of the real potential of drone delivery.

“This visionary project in Rwanda has the potential to revolutionize public health, and its life-saving potential is vast,” Margaret Chan, director general of the World Health Organization, said in a statement.

Zipline is also an example of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs looking beyond just building apps and capitalizing on the latest tech trends. “I always think of Peter Thiel, the venture capitalist, who said, ‘They promised us flying cars and all we got was 140 characters,’” Paul Willard, an investor in Zipline, told the Times. “This feels a little bit more like flying cars.”

(Read more: New York Times, Sorry Shoppers, Delivery Drones Might Not Fly for a While”)

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