By Adam McCully

Recently we’ve been writing some articles on drones moving out of the military and recreational fields and into the commercial sector. Drones in the workforce are changing the way a lot of businesses operate and in most cases increasing the speed and efficiency with which certain tasks get carried out. With that in mind, it makes sense that drones be incorporated into the medical field as well, especially in emergency medical situations where every second counts.

Zipline is a Silicon Valley based startup that’s been making a lot of headway in this area recently. Their mission is to deliver essential medical supplies through the use of drones to inaccessible areas, and they’re putting their medical drones to the test in one of the harshest environments in the world, Rwanda.

Knows as “The Land of A Thousand Hills,” much of Rwanda’s population live in small, secluded villages far from any form of modern medicine. Because of this, medical care simply wasn’t an option for many Rwandans, and even situations like childbirth often resulted in death. Zipline’s CEO, Keller Rinuado, noticed the dire need for a more efficient chain of medical care and supplies after visiting Africa in 2014. “Rwanda is interesting,” Rinuado said during a recent interview. “It is still one of the poorest countries of the world, but it is run by an incredibly innovative and technology-focused government that is willing to make big bets on the future.”

Zipline uses a fixed-wing UAV they call the Zip to deliver payloads up to 1.5 kg (3.3 lbs) with a range of over 120 km (74.5 miles). Doctors can place an order via text message and a Zip drone will be sent out immediately. The drones are actually launched from a slingshot device located near a medical warehouse and the payload is dropped using a parachute. Using ground based vehicles, medical supplies could take up to 15 hours to reach some of the more remote villages in Rwanda. Using this method, supplies reach their destination in minutes more often than not.

This is a big step for drones and a lot of big companies are taking notice. Already Zipline has secured financial backing from UPS, Stanford University, and Google, and the Rwandan government couldn’t be happier with the results so far. Hopefully, this is just the beginning of UAV medical response units.

Zipline, CNBC