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Startup founder aims to bridge Philippine healthcare gaps with drones

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Rapid advancements in healthcare mean those with the resources to live in global centers are often able to live longer, healthier lives. But seldom do life-saving medicines and materials make it to the world’s most remote communities.

In Rwanda and Ghana, two countries facing massive inequality in terms of the availability of vital medical supplies, both the lack of materials and proper infrastructure to transport them paint a fatal picture for those outside major metropoles. That’s why Keller Rinaudo founded Zipline in 2014, with the dream of building “an instant, automated logistics system for the planet.”

Zipline is the world’s first drone delivery service providing life-saving medicines to isolated communities otherwise considered unreachable. To date, they’ve made over 14,000 deliveries in areas across Rwanda and Ghana. Yesterday morning, June 7, Rinaudo and his team met with Secretary of Health Francisco T. Duque III and Secretary of National Defense Delfin N. Lorenzana to discuss bringing those services to the Philippines.

Speaking at “Future Forward”, an event organized by global non-profit Asia Society and co-presented by Businessworld Sparkup, Rinaudo shared his vision of an archipelago bridged by fully autonomous drones capable of delivering vital materials like blood and medicines in mere minutes.

The drones themselves, called Zips, are electric airplanes weighing in at roughly 35 pounds. Designed and manufactured by Zipline, they navigate to and from their destinations via an onboard chip. They are launched from distribution centers, and are tracked throughout their journeys by trained local operators.




A few minutes out from arrival, recipients get a text message informing them to watch out for their deliveries. Descending to about 40 feet off the ground, the drone drops the parcel, complete with a deployed paper parachute, to hit a predetermined target roughly the size of two parking slots. “This means that the experience of ordering something is super simple,” Rinaudo said. “You just send a text message and get what you need to save a person’s life 15 minutes later.”

“We thought that community acceptance would be a challenge,” Rinaudo said. “But we couldn’t have been further from the truth.” In Rwanda, up to 25 percent of the national blood supply is delivered to hospitals and healthcare facilities across the country by this system. Through their collaboration with Zipline, Rwanda was able to vastly increase access to medical supplies, while also reducing blood waste from seven percent, amounting to a national average of about $1 million in waste, to zero percent at the hospitals the drone delivery platform serves.

“People in Rwanda today say ‘Yeah, of course we have drones that deliver blood. How else would you solve that problem?’” he said. “It’s amazing how fast it goes from science fiction to totally boring.”

All in all, Zipline’s network comprises the largest commercial autonomous system in the world.

Speaking from their experience operating in the African region, Rinaudo said the key to their success has been deep collaboration with governments willing to embrace new technologies in solving age-old problems.

“Many people think the next big technological applications of our time will come out of places like Japan or the United States,” he said. Instead, Rinaudo points to the nations with greater needs and more open minds to new solutions. “It’s precisely the governments that embrace innovation that end up leapfrogging ahead of even developed nations,” he said.

While the Zipline team wasn’t at liberty to discuss in depth their specific plans for expansion into the Philippines, Rinaudo said that, historically, they’ve been able to make their first drone delivery within one month of signing contracts with their government partners.

Zipline’s massive platform is proof that AI-powered robotics can do for logistics what the Internet has done for information. Today, global players are finding countless applications in e-commerce and moving consumer goods.

“We don’t believe the long-term impact of that technology is delivering your tennis shoes or pizza,” Rinaudo said. “We believe the long-term impact of that technology is providing universal healthcare to every person on the planet.”

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