Although many of us take access to quality hospitals and cutting-edge healthcare for granted, the World Health Organization reported earlier this year that over 400 million people in the world lack access to proper medical treatment . This situation is especially troubling in developing nations throughout the Middle East and Africa, where political turmoil and treacherous terrain can make delivery of blood and medical supplies a difficult, sometimes impossible, task. Zipline, a robotics and drone company based out of Silicon Valley, may have found a solution. By partnering with Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, the Rwandan government, and UPS Foundation, Zipline’s team has developed a way to get medical supplies into the hands of medical care providers who can save thousands of lives: by building and launching the world’s first fleet of medical delivery drones .
Hold up – What is a drone? You mean those white flying camera toys people use to take panoramic pictures of their wedding parties?
Although the fundamental technology has been around for decades, the average person has historically associated the word “drone” with intelligence gathering or covert operations in the Middle East . Drones are classified as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), and can take on a variety of shapes and sizes depending on the intended use and functionality. As UAVs made their entrance into the commercial sphere over the course of the last few years, drones began to gain attention in the headlines for a variety of applications including delivering pizzas, guiding ships away from Arctic ice blocks, and, every once in a while, for making an unwelcome pit stop on the White House lawn  .
Inspired by the drone buzz and motivated by the potential impact of the newly formed partnership with the Rwandan government, Zipline’s 30-person team began building a fleet of customized “Zip” drones at a test facility on the outskirts of San Francisco. The entire system, once completed, was then transported by a UPS logistics team to the central hub, or “Nest” in Rwanda .
Using the Nest as a home base, the Zips are powered by a mounted battery and launched into the air by a catapult, after which the drones can guide themselves using GPS location data; this information is transmitted back to the hub as well as to Rwandan air traffic authorities by cellular connection. The drones stay below 500 ft of altitude to avoid interfering with passenger airliners, and cut what would have been a 3-4 hour voyage by car to under 30 minutes. When the Zip reaches its destination, a cardboard box containing the medical supplies is dropped into a designated “mailbox” area, where it is retrieved by a health professional. Zipline’s first batch of drones will be making an estimated 150 trips per day to the 21 clinics selected to participate in the pilot program (see Zip launch and transfusion clinic location network below, courtesy of Zipline).
As is often the case when innovation outpaces regulation, there have been mixed legislative reactions to the commercialization of drones across the globe. The US government recently eased restrictions and abandoned expensive legacy permit requirements for drone operation. The U.S. Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) has estimated that the business generated under the new law will lead to the creation of more than 100,000 new jobs, yielding a whopping $82 billion for the American economy over the next decade . Other countries have taken a more stringent approach to drone legislation due to terrorist and privacy concerns, thereby minimizing -or in Kenya’s case, eliminating – commercial UAV operation all together. Alternatively, Ghana requires registration of all licensed drones, punishing violators with lengthy prison sentences. Nigeria has taken a slightly more capitalistic approach, demanding each individual drone user to pay $2500 to apply for a 3-year permit- although applying for one by no means guarantees acceptance .
Although there are valid safety, privacy and security concerns about drones as the technology approaches mainstream status, it’s important to educate governments and individuals about the enormous benefits that can be derived from applying UAV and GPS technology to tackle complex problems in new and creative ways. The type of public-private partnership established between Zipline and the Rwandan government can be replicated to serve endless purposes, including Malaria vaccine transport, dangerous mining, and pipeline inspection, just to name a few. This model of cooperation and information-sharing is arguably the best way to win over drone-skeptics: saving lives, while working to understand the regulations that will be required to maintain safety and protect the public’s privacy.
 WHO/World Bank Release, “New report shows that 400 million do not have access to essential health services,” June 12, 2015, http://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/releases/2015/uhc-report/en/ Accessed November 2016.
 “Rwanda Launches World’s First National Drone Delivery Service Powered By Zipline,” UPS Pressroom, October 13, 2016, https://www.pressroom.ups.com/pressroom/ContentDetailsViewer.page?ConceptType=PressReleases&id=1476387513855-624 Accessed November, 2016
 Dan Simmons, “Rwanda begins Zipline commercial drone deliveries,” BBC, October 14th, 2016. http://www.bbc.com/news/technology-37646474 Accessed November, 2016.
 Matt McFarland, “Ship relies on drone to avoid ice blocks Arctic waters,” CNN Money, November 5, 2016. http://money.cnn.com/2016/11/05/technology/arctic-drone-ship-navigate/index.html Accessed November, 2016.
 Kristen Holmes, “Man detailed outside White House for trying to fly drone,” CNN Politics, May 15, 2015. http://www.cnn.com/2015/05/14/politics/white-house-drone-arrest/ Accessed November, 2016.
 Nyshka Chandran, “FAA’s new drone laws go into effect Monday, allowing US companies to innovate,” CNBC, August 29, 2016. http://www.cnbc.com/2016/08/29/faas-new-drone-laws-go-into-effect-monday-allowing-us-companies-to-innovate.html Accessed November 2016.
 Cassie Werber, “Blood from heaven: The world’s first commercial drone service has launched in Rwanda, ” Quartz Africa, October 14,2016 http://qz.com/809576/zipline-has-launched-the-worlds-first-commercial-drone-delivery-service-to-supply-blood-in-rwanda/ Accessed November, 2016.