How Tiny Planes Could Revolutionize Health Care

A California startup is flying into uncharted territory to make lifesaving deliveries.

More than two billion people lack adequate access to essential medical products, such as blood and vaccines. Stanford-trained roboticist Keenan Wyrobek paved a different path by developing drone technology.

How Tiny Planes Could Revolutionize Health Care

A California startup is flying into uncharted territory to make lifesaving deliveries.

More than two billion people lack adequate access to essential medical products, such as blood and vaccines. Stanford-trained roboticist Keenan Wyrobek paved a different path by developing drone technology.
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Keenan Wyrobek was looking for a big problem in health care to solve—and on a trip to Tanzania, he found one. There, doctors told him about not being able to get the blood and medicines they needed to treat patients. People were dying of treatable illnesses, all because the roads were bad or the supplies weren't close enough.

The trip inspired Wyrobek to co-found Zipline, a California-based company that ferries supplies to remote health care sites using specialized, insulated drones. The company is currently delivering blood to hospitals in Rwanda via a local distribution center, and there are plans to expand to other countries.

Here, he fills in details about the video above and talks about what's next.

How did your trip to Tanzania inspire Zipline?

[My co-founder and I] were exploring the needs in public health in developing world countries. We had heard how challenging running a high-reliability supply chain was in these countries that are close to the Equator … they have long rainy seasons, predominantly dirt roads, and a lack of bridges. But we really didn't understand the magnitude of the problem.

It was really this enterprising young graduate student at the Ifakara Health Institute who pulled us aside and said, hey, you've gotta look at this. He had gone around the countryside of Tanzania and convinced doctors to text him every time they didn't have what they needed to treat a patient. They'd text him what they didn't have and then the impact of not having it. Then he sorts the data by death—basically how many of these resulted in somebody dying because they didn't have what they needed. This sort of "database of death" was a wake-up call for us. The governments we talked to were super-excited, and the rest is, well, history.

Was there anything in your background that dovetailed with public health?

I started my career in technology for medicine—medical device design, even medical robotics. When I was doing medical device work in the earlier part of my career, I saw a lot of potential for impact. I also saw a lot people doing things that didn't actually provide much impact but were great businesses. It was a bit frustrating that there wasn't a big focus on doing both.

You mentioned in the video how every health worker you met was nearly in tears about not having what they need to treat patients. Is there a particular story that comes to mind?

In Rwanda, 40 percent of our blood goes to treat postpartum hemorrhaging. One anecdote that was really startling was hearing from one country—this wasn't in Rwanda—that if they don't have the blood they need, they'll literally hand a cooler to the husband and be like, hey, we think this hospital over there has your wife's blood type, hurry back. It's hard to even imagine that stress and that challenge and then, if you don't get back in time, that devastation. That really resonated with me. (See also: Volunteer Bikers Save Lives by Delivering Blood in the Dead of Night)

The other big use case in Rwanda … is treating children who have anemia induced from having malaria. It's another one where having blood is a very effective way to save that child's life, but without it there just aren't really other options. It turns malaria from this very deadly to a survivable illness, which is obviously critical given the prevalence of malaria near the Equator.

What are some of the challenges you've faced in trying to adapt drones for this purpose?

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Zipline's insulated drones drop blood products at hospitals in Rwanda, bypassing difficult or nonexistent roads.

Emergencies don't wait for good weather, so designing a system that can really fly in all weather was a big source of our challenges.

How did you approach testing for weather?

Imagine a leaf blower that's five times bigger than any leaf blower you've seen, with a garden hose attached to the front of it. We used that to blast our prototypes with high-velocity rain to really make sure that our waterproofing was, well, waterproof, and that our systems actually would hold up to that after hours of that just blasting at them.

You've been operating in Rwanda since October. How is it going?

It's going really well. We're in a mode now where we're adding hospitals every week and expanding the operations. The distribution center is operated by a local team that we've hired since October and been training and now they run it. It may sound small, but getting to the point where we had the operational excellence so the teams could switch over and could run all day, every day, without a hitch has been really critical.

About six weeks ago, at the end of our operating day, there was a big car accident very near one of the hospitals we were serving. The hospital called us and said, we really need you guys to keep operating through the night. As they figured out the blood types of all the patients coming through, the conditions they were in, and how much blood they needed, we just kept on making deliveries. I'm not sure they could have gotten that much blood to one location that quickly any other way.

Can you paint a picture of the facilities where you're delivering?

They're fairly big hospitals, serving populations on the order of half a million people. For the Rwandan government, we put some GoPro cameras on our planes once to show what we're flying over. I don't think we flew over a single paved road in the few videos we made for them. These are dense but rural districts, and the hospitals are in the middle of them. They're challenging to get to even when it's not raining.

What's the next step for Zipline?

We're really excited about delivering vaccines and pharmaceuticals to health clinics and also what are called village health workers—typically they're a mother or grandmother in a village trained in a handful of very common challenges. We can be a huge part in making sure they are always stocked with what they need, regardless of how remote that village is.

We're very passionate about solving this at a global scale. The team that operates the distribution center in Rwanda—those are the future leaders of our operations teams that will operate distribution centers all over the place. We invest in these folks, and they're extraordinarily passionate about this as well. We're really excited about how we'll eventually operate tens and hundreds and, hopefully, thousands of distribution centers and try to just completely solve this last leg of delivery in developing countries everywhere.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.