Ask someone who doesn’t own a drone what they’re good for, and you might hear one of the following: “Taking pictures” or “killing people.”
Zipline is trying to change that, deploying a 25-pound electric airplane called Zip over areas of Rwanda that are hard to reach. Zip airdrops blood, medicine or vaccines to health centers, and then returns automatically to its home base, Zipline’s distribution center.
“Ten years ago, people would have said, ‘Cellphones are never going to be useful in Africa,’ you can’t imagine that infrastructure working,” Zipline CEO Keller Rinaudo said on the latest episode of Too Embarrassed to Ask. “Actually, cellphones have allowed a lot of these countries to totally leapfrog the absence of landlines and build infrastructure that has made people’s lives a lot better. We’re hoping to do the same for transportation and logistics in these countries, using drones to leapfrog the absence of roads.”
First delivery of blood to a hospital pic.twitter.com/1URysgL6iS— Keller Rinaudo (@KellerRinaudo) October 16, 2016
Rinaudo said Rwandan regulators have been far easier to deal with than their counterparts in the U.S. — partly because of the country’s smaller size, but also because of the clearly recognized need for medical supplies in these regions. Zipline says it works with 21 hospitals nationwide and is paid for each delivery.
“What I’m always stressing is, ‘Look, this is not philanthropy,’” Rinaudo said. “And actually, it’s kind of a bummer that we view doing something good for people in the world, in places that really need it, as being totally divorced from a sustainable business model. Our mission is to show that you can do both.”
Zipline’s investors include Andreessen Horowitz, GV and Sequoia Capital, and it has raised $85 million to date.
Rinaudo noted that Americans are more cynical about the potential misuse of drones than Rwandans, but the company has strived all the same to avoid being perceived as an affiliate of the U.S. military.
“When we’re going in and operating in countries, one of the questions we often get from the government is, ‘Is this going to be spying on us? Are you working for the defense department?’” he said.
“In Rwanda, we have a fence around our distribution center, just to keep things clear because planes are taking off and landing,” he added. “And there’s a huge group of Rwandans day in and day out who line up on that fence and cheer every launch and every landing ... When you ask them what they think about it, they just say, ‘Oh, it’s a sky ambulance!’ So it’s totally obvious to them what this is and why it’s needed.”
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This article originally appeared on Recode.net.