Vampire Drones: CEO Keller Rinaudo details Rwanda’s UAV solution for last mile blood supply-Carnegie Mellon University Africa - Carnegie Mellon University

Vampire Drones: CEO Keller Rinaudo details Rwanda’s UAV solution for last mile blood supply

Keller Rinaudo, CEO and founder of Zipline Inc, delighted students and faculty at CMU-R with a wide-ranging discussion about the solution that his company is providing the Government of Rwanda to enable delivery of blood throughout the country via Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV). The agreement, which was signed this week, follows 12 months of work with Rwanda Civil Aviation Authority to ensure safety and regulatory compliance.

There are several problems with the current blood supply chain; the main difficulty is predicting what blood will be needed at clinics and health centers. Blood supplies can only be kept for 30 days, so failure to stock the right type will not only cause problems for patients who need urgent transfusions but may lead to unused blood at the wrong location being destroyed. 

Zipline produces the hardware, software, avionics for UAVs - their solution promises to revolutionize the blood supply chain by eliminating the need for large stocks at medical centers, delivering the blood by air as needed.

The solution is cost competitive with overland transportation of blood but is 20 times faster and wastes no blood.

KellerZipline’s aerial vehicles weigh 10kg and can deliver blood to over 22 transfusing facilities in Rwanda. Each flight can carry up to 2 units of blood, which is usually enough enough to safe a life. Multiple drones can be sent to the same location if more are required.

“What’s exciting is that this technology is very new, so as we get to scale, every aspect of the system will improve”, Rinaudo explained.

Zipline vehicles use fixed wings for efficiency and have an approximate 1.5m wingspan and are powered by batteries.  They fly at a maximum height of 125m, well below commercial aircraft.

“In the future, anyone who has a smart phone will have GPS coordinates, so the possibilities for delivery locations are infinite”, Rinaudo answered to our student’s question on future plans.

All vehicles will take-off and land only at the “nest” site in Muhanga, 30kms outside Kigali.  The vehicles can fly in rain and strong wind, and when asked about dangers to wildlife, Rinaudo replied “it turns out birds have excellent sense and avoid technology, we operate in areas with many birds and have yet to have a collision.”

Rinaudo’s excitement for the project is clearly visible, as is his admiration for the operational environment in Rwanda.  “[With this agreement] Rwanda is the first place in the world where drones will be integrated with an existing public health supply chain, which is a testament to the Ministry of ICT, of Health and to H.E. President Kagame who approached us.”

“We partner with governments that are visionary and innovative. We have been so impressed by the Government of Rwanda and helped by the lack of bureaucracy here.”

Rinaudo finished the lively Q&A session, by sharing the startup story of Zipline, and by encouraging our students to tread their own path:

“If ever there was a time to do something awesome in software or robotics, this is it, your skills are in demand. You don’t have to work for a big company; there are a lot of options. We didn’t have money when we started; we just built something cool and kept going.”