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Zipline drone
Zipline’s next-generation drone can hit a top speed of 80 mph. (Zipline Photo)

A California-based aerial delivery venture called Zipline has unveiled what it calls “the fastest commercial delivery drone on Earth,” capable of flying as fast as 80 mph (128 km/h).

Sustained cruising speed for the latest version of Zipline’s fixed-wing drone is almost 63 mph (101 km/h), which is about 13 mph faster than the previous version. It has a round-trip range of 100 miles, and can carry a maximum load of nearly 4 pounds.

The drone isn’t the only thing that’s been upgraded: Changes in the company’s logistics system have reduced the time from receipt of an order to the launch of a fulfillment flight from 10 minutes to one minute.

That’s crucial for Zipline’s first application: delivering blood and medical supplies to isolated areas of Rwanda in central Africa. Since launching the service, Zipline’s 15 drones have flown more than 185,000 miles and has delivered 7,000 units of blood in the course of more than 4,000 flights.

Zipline now delivers more than 20 percent of Rwanda’s blood supply outside the capital, Kigali. About a third of its deliveries have been made in life-and-death situations.

“From the time the hospital sent for the blood to the time of receiving it, not even five minutes passed. It was very fast,” Francoise Mukeshimana, a patient who benefited from a Zipline blood delivery, said in a video that Zipline released today. “If I had not gotten the blood, I would have lost my life.”

Zipline is in the process of opening a second distribution center in Rwanda, and making plans to participate in a pilot program in the United States.

“The new aircraft and distribution center system we’re unveiling today will help Zipline scale to meet the needs of countries around the world — including the United States,” Zipline CEO Keller Rinaudo said in a news release.

The Federal Aviation Administration’s UAS Integration Pilot Program is aimed at facilitating up to five test deployments of drones (also known as unmanned aerial systems, or UAS) under experimental conditions — including flight beyond an operator’s visual line of sight.

Details surrounding the pilot projects are due to be announced next month. Zipline says it’ll be ready to take part by the end of the year.

Back in 2016, Zipline said it was planning to partner with several ventures for test deliveries of medical supplies. One of the tests was said to involve a blood delivery operation in Washington state’s San Juan Islands, conducted in cooperation with Bloodworks Northwest or the Lummi Reservation.

Zipline’s investors include Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen as well as Sequoia Capital, Google Ventures, Andreessen Horowitz, SV Angel, Subtraction Capital, Yahoo founder Jerry Yang and Stanford University. The company has raised more than $40 million in investment to date, including a $25 million Series B funding round that was led by Visionnaire Ventures in 2016.

Last year, Zipline expanded its medical delivery operation from Rwanda to Tanzania as part of an initiative backed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

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