The World’s Fastest Commercial Drone Will Drop Blood on the US This Year

Zipline has been using its drones for months to deliver lifesaving blood to Rwandan villages. Now it’s coming to the US.

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Apr 3 2018, 7:30pm

Image: Zipline

For the last two years, a US drone delivery company called Zipline has flying blood around East Africa.

The company was founded on the idea that it could save lives by using drones to drastically reduce the delivery time for blood, plasma, and other critical supplies to medical clinics in rural areas. Since it started its pilot program in Rwanda in 2016, Zipline’s drones have flown more than 185,000 miles and now account for 20 percent of the the country’s blood supply in rural areas, according to IEEE. Zipline has will expand its services to Tanzania, and may begin offering similar services in the US this year.

By early May, the Federal Aviation Administration is expected to unveil its “UAS Integration Pilot Program.” This is, essentially, the federal government’s first comprehensive framework for operating commercial drone fleets in the United States. So far, a number of companies ranging from Amazon to Domino’s have done one-off stunt drone deliveries. But FAA regulations—or lack thereof—meant these companies couldn’t build these stunts out into a full-fledged commercial drone delivery service.

Along with the FAA’s drone regulations, the administration will also be announcing a number of companies that will be the first to be able to take advantage of the program. Zipline hopes to be among the first to join the program, and it’s CEO Keller Rinaudo told IEEE it is “working closely with a number of different states to demonstrate medical product delivery in suburban and rural areas."

Ahead of its US debut, Zipline announced a second generation drone that far out performs its previous model. In fact, the drone is being heralded as the "world's fastest" commercial drone. The company’s newest drones can carry payloads of just under four pounds, reach peak speeds of 80 miles per hour and have a range of about 100 miles. This is four times faster and 200 times farther than top-tier commercial quadcopter drones. Zipline said its first generation drones were able to fulfill about 50 orders a day and it hopes the improved capabilities of its new drones will allow the company to do up to 500 orders per day in Rwanda.

Read More: Amazon’s Delivery Drone May Face New Regulatory Roadblocks

Zipline’s fixed-wing drones are launched from a central hub stockpiled with medical supplies. Medical orders are sent to the hub via text or phone, and a staff member onsite loads the order into the drone. The staffer then scans a QR code on the order corresponding to the medical clinic’s location and the drone is able to determine the best route to its destination.The drones then autonomously pilot themselves to the recipients before dropping the blood attached to a parachute. When the drone pilots itself back to the Zipline hub, it is retrieved using a small hook on its tail that catches on a line suspended in the air.

As Russia’s spectacular failure during the first flight of its postal service delivery drone goes to show, making drones work for the public good is hard. But Zipline seems to be off to a pretty good start.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Zipline's first generation drones could fulfill 100 orders a day. 15 of these drones were actually capable of fulfilling 50 orders per day. Motherboard regrets the error.