Hack & Craft Insights puts some big questions to an innovative new technology provider to find out what they do, and why.
This week: medical drone company, Zipline.
Zipline works with governments and organisations to deliver medical and other essential supplies via smart drones to areas where the local infrastructure may be poor, or people may be long distances from hospitals. We caught up with their Company Spokesperson.
Where and why was Zipline founded, and by whom?
Zipline was founded by CEO Keller Rinaudo in 2011. The plan to use drones to overcome infrastructure challenges for medical deliveries came when Keller visited the Ifakara Health Institute in Tanzania. There, he met a graduate student who had built a mobile alert system for health workers to text emergency requests for medicine and vaccines. Health workers used the mobile alert system to make thousands of emergency requests, which had never before been possible to do. Unfortunately, there was no way for the government to fulfil these requests. It became clear that this was a database of death filled with thousands of names, addresses, ages, phone numbers. We’ve designed Zipline to solve the second half of this problem. We know who needs medicine, when and where. And now, we can get them that medicine as quickly as possible.
Is it a non-profit?
Zipline is a company with social mission.
Are the applications solely medical?
Yes. There are so many potential applications for drone delivery, and you read stories all the time about drones that deliver everything from slurpees to pizzas. But we wanted to build technology that could help save someone’s life.
Your first project is in Rwanda. Why there, and tell us more about what you are doing there?
All over the world millions of women are dying each year during childbirth because of postpartum hemorrhaging. This is true of both developed and developing countries. In fact the United States has the highest rate in the industrialized world of maternal death due to postpartum hemorrhaging. All of these deaths can be prevented if we can just get these mothers the blood they need when they need it. That’s the key. We know what the treatment is, the problem is there are 32 different types of blood and blood products. They spoil quickly and it’s difficult for a hospital to determine how much of which types of blood they should stock at any given time. So all too often, hospitals don’t have the blood that a hemorrhaging mother needs when she needs it and she dies. I recently read a heartbreaking story about a new mother who began hemorrhaging after childbirth and died soon thereafter because, as her husband said, “there was a complete shortage of platelets in the state of New Jersey.” This is a big problem in the United States, where, despite having one of the most advanced health care systems in the world, postpartum deaths are increasing and not decreasing. It’s also a big problem in Rwanda. But unlike the United States, Rwanda is actually leading the world in developing innovative solutions to help prevent these needless deaths and keep mother’s alive.
Rwanda is a developed nation in many respects – for example, it is the only country in the world to have 50+ plus percent women’s representation in parliament. Does its progressive agenda make it easier to work with the authorities there?
Rwanda has worked very hard, and successfully so, at being a hub for innovation and solving global problems through technology. We couldn’t be more pleased with our partnership.
Some nations resent the presence of Western organisations. For people that are trying to solve real problems, how difficult can this make things?
Every day, we have hundreds of Rwandans lining up along the fence of the distribution centre to watch operations. The whole crowd cheers for every single take-off and landing throughout the day. Some people show up at 6 am to get good seats! When people see Zips quietly flying over their house once or twice a day, they call them “sky ambulances”. The plane’s presence reassures them that that if a member of their family has a medical emergency, they’ll have access to the medical products they need to save their life. So they see us as essential to their health and well-being.
The drone itself is of the plane type, rather than the more familiar quadcopter. Why?
Quadcopters have a basic engineering problem – they use all their energy to maintain lift, which means they can only fly very short distances. Our work requires us to serve clinics across the country with on-demand emergency service. So we custom built an autonomous aircraft that can fly a 150 km round trip.
Might you have to adapt the design to suit other types of terrain or environment?
Between Northern California and East Africa, we operate in environments with up to 30 mph winds, tropical rainstorms, and hilly and high altitudes. We build aircraft ready to handle the terrain they serve.
How big a factor is security in the drone’s design: securing the content and ensuring it ends up in the right hands?
We built our own end-to-end encryption into the infrastructure that flies the vehicle from scratch, in particular our communication system with the vehicle. It’s extremely secure. In terms of keeping people safe on the ground and ensuring the product gets to where it needs to be, we pre-program each vehicle with all the information necessary to complete a mission. Customers receive a text message alerting them that they package is on its way to the designated delivery area, which we call a mailbox. When delivering the product, the plane deploys an elegant parachute that slows the fall, keeping the product and people on the ground safe.
Zipline could be beneficial in many countries, including ones that have excellent medical facilities – for example, for remote rural areas or islands in the UK. Are you focusing solely on countries that have massive infrastructural challenges?
Correct. Issues like maternal death due to postpartum hemorrhaging (PPH) impact every country, from developed to developing. The United States leads the industrialised world in deaths due to PPH. So patients here could use this kind of innovation. Across the world, more than two billion people lack adequate access to essential medical products, such as blood and vaccines, due to challenging terrain and gaps in infrastructure.
Do you think regulations for drones will become tougher?
Countries around the world recognise that drones will be an important part of our delivery, logistics and transportation infrastructure for the foreseeable future. So my hope is that governments around the world continue to take smart steps to make sure we can benefit from these technologies in a safe and efficient way. Rwanda is proving that every day.
How do you see Zipline developing in the long term?
We’re building an instant delivery service for the world.
How do people find you and work with you?
Anyone can contact us via our website.
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