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Zipline’s drones have been delivering blood supplies for months in Rwanda. (Zipline Photo)

While Amazon continues testing drone delivery systems for popcorn and other consumer goods, a startup called Zipline is expanding its fully operational medical drone delivery system from Rwanda to Tanzania to serve a desperate global health need.

Among the effort’s backers is the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Today Tanzanian health officials announced that they’ll launch what may well rank as the world’s largest drone delivery service in the first quarter of 2018.

When the system is up and running, fixed-wing drones will make up to 2,000 deliveries a day to more than 1,000 health facilities that serve 10 million people, according to a news release issued by California-based Zipline.

“We strive to ensure that all 5,640 public health facilities have all the essential medicines, medical supplies and laboratory reagents they need, wherever they are – even in the most hard-to-reach areas,” Laurean Bwanakunu, director general of Tanzania’s Medical Stores Department, said in the release.

“But that mission can be a challenge during emergencies, times of unexpected demand, bad weather, or for small but critical orders,” Bwanakunu said. “Using drones for just-in-time deliveries will allow us to provide health facilities with complete access to vital medical products, no matter the circumstance.”

Zipline will provide the drones as well as the delivery service, following up on a similar project the company initiated in neighboring Rwanda last October for on-demand emergency blood deliveries.

Since October, Zipline’s drones have racked up more than 60,000 flight miles (100,000 kilometers) in Rwanda, delivering 2,600 units of blood over the course of more than 1,400 flights, the company said.

Four distribution centers will be established in Tanzania, starting in Dodoma, the East African nation’s capital, Zipline said. Each center will be equipped with up to 30 drones, with the capacity to make 500 on-demand delivery flights per day.

The drones can carry up to 3.3 pounds (1.5 kilograms) of medical supplies at cruise speeds of nearly 70 mph, with a round-trip range of 100 miles. Health workers can place an order by text message and receive their package within 30 minutes, on average.

The drones typically descend close to the ground near the targeted health center and air-drop their cargo at the end of a parachute.

Boxes of blood are readied for drone delivery in Rwanda. (Zipline Photo)

Researchers from Tanzania’s Ifakara Health Institute and the University of Glasgow will evaluate the impact of the delivery service on the clinics served by the Dodoma center. The evaluation research will be supported by the Gates Foundation as well as the Human Development Innovation Fund and Saving Lives at Birth, an initiative led by the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Mpoki Ulisubisya, permanent secretary of the Tanzania Ministry of Health, said Zipline should help his country realize its vision of having “a healthy society with improved social well-being that will contribute effectively to personal and national development.”

Zipline CEO Keller Rinaudo said the operations in Rwanda and Tanzania could have an impact that goes well beyond Africa.

“Millions of people across the world die each year because they can’t get the medicine they need when they need it,” Rinaudo said. “It’s a problem in both developed and developing countries. But it’s a problem we can help solve with on-demand drone delivery. And African nations are showing the world how it’s done.”

Zipline’s investors include Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen as well as Sequoia Capital, Google Ventures, SV Angel, Subtraction Capital, Yahoo founder Jerry Yang and Stanford University. Last November, the company reported raising $25 million in a Series B funding round led by Visionnaire Ventures.

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