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The Ambulance fleet using Drones in the future

It’s that time of year again. Sleigh bells overhead and our jolly, bearded benefactor wafting gifts down the chimney to eagerly awaiting hands. We’ve heard every version of this tale. Except, perhaps, the variant that is currently playing out in East Africa. In the funny way that magic tales and science fiction sometimes become reality, if you swap out sleigh bells for drones and gifts for emergency medical supplies, you’ve got the real world tale of Zipline, a company delivering 20% of national blood supply via drone in Rwanda. The Sequoia and A16Z-backed company recently announced it would be expanding operations to neighboring Tanzania.

Meanwhile, here in the U.S. the drone sleigh bells are few and far between, hampered by our aviation regulatory framework, which has not kept pace. In October the Trump Administration signed an executive order giving local governments more leeway to conduct unmanned drone tests. The order allows local governments and communities to work with industry to design their own trial programs and apply to the Federal Aviation Administration for waivers to the existing rules. “Our nation will move faster, fly higher, and soar proudly toward the next great chapter of American aviation” said Trump. The direction was the right one. But there has been little follow up and the rate of progress remains lightyears behind other countries, prompting Amazon and Google to head overseas to the UK and Australia to conduct drone tests the past few years.

In an interview for Flux podcast I sat down with Keller Rinaudo, the CEO of Zipline, for a wide-ranging conversation about government policy, innovation and the future of autonomous infrastructure. We got into how he thinks the U.S. government has become ossified and what it would take to become a leader in this space. He also shares how he’s built a successful partnership with UPS, dealt with naysayers, and how he thinks about risk. At the heart of the Zipline story is real-world grit, a dedicated team, cutting-edge technology, and a government bold enough to take risks. An excerpt of the conversation is published below. Zipline is looking to build instant delivery for the planet and our mission is to deliver urgent medical products to people in difficult to reach and remote places. Today we’re operating at national scale in Rwanda. We’re delivering a significant percentage of the national blood supply on a day to day basis and we allow hospitals across the country to get instant access to any blood product that a patient needs on either a routine or an emergency basis.

In the long run the goal is to be serving all healthcare facilities across Rwanda. Something like 40 hospitals. Then there are an additional 400 health centers that don’t do blood transfusions but do need access to a whole host of medical products that are hard to get access to. In the long run the vision of the Rwandan government is to put each of their 13 million citizens within a 15 minute delivery of any essential medical product they could need.

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