A drone from California-based Zipline that delivers medical supplies to rural areas is prepared for launch in Rwanda. (Courtesy of Zipline)

Drones carrying lifesaving blood to rural medical clinics now soar through the skies over Rwanda.

California-based Zipline, the company that generated buzz with its plans to transport medical supplies to remote communities using drones, has officially launched its delivery service in the small African nation. It’s the first implementation of a concept that could soon make its way to the United States, where Zipline intends to deliver medical necessities to isolated areas, such as reservations and islands.

“People have this sense that the U.S. leads the world in terms of technology and then Africa catches up, and I actually think that might be changing,” Keller Rinaudo, Zipline’s chief executive, said. “This is a great example. It’s actually smaller countries like Rwanda that are willing to take risks and actually invest in something radically new.”

Doctors in remote clinics use a mobile phone to contact the Zipline distribution center and request blood of a certain type. The center’s staff then loads the blood into an aerial drone that gets flung into the air and flies directly to the medical facility. This video shows the launch, with slow-motion detail:

Zipline drones are delivering blood in Rwanda to rural medical clinics. (Video: Zipline)

When it arrives at the clinic, the drone drops the parachute-equipped package onto a target the size of about three parking spaces. The drone then returns to the distribution center, all without landing or needing to be recharged. Watch the drop here:

California-based Zipline delivers blood and other medical necessities to rural clinics in Rwanda using drones. (Video: Zipline)

Zipline’s drones can travel up to 150 kilometers (about 93 miles) round trip and move at speeds up to 130 kilometers (75 miles) an hour. The company can process as many as 150 blood deliveries per day.

“From the experience of the doctor, the experience is super simple. They never touch a drone or come near a drone or worry about what it is,” Rinaudo said in a phone interview from Rwanda’s capital, Kigali.

Rinaudo said the delivery should replace the ad hoc system in place at many rural clinics today, where staff might travel several hours to the nearest blood bank because the clinic does not have the capacity to store blood. That journey can be especially difficult in areas with limited infrastructure.

“Drones are very useful, both commercially and for improving services in the health sector,” Rwandan President Paul Kagame said in a statement. “We are happy to be launching this innovative technology and to continue working with partners to develop it further.”

Commercial drone delivery has yet to be fully realized in the United States, in part because of strict regulations over who can fly drones, where they can fly and for what purpose. The Federal Aviation Administration released rules in August that for the first time allowed commercial drone use, and the agency plans to gradually expand those rules over time.

Zipline isn’t the only organization that sees the potential for drones to address the persistent humanitarian and health-care needs in some African countries. The Associated Press reports that the United Nations and Michigan-based Vayu have also begun pilot programs in which drones ferry HIV tests and lab samples to and from rural locations within the continent.

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