Zipline’s new blood-delivery drone is ready to save lives

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The drone's engines are working, and I have 30 seconds to turn the red safety switch on top of the metal control panel, hold the blue button, and then press the green button to start the drone. It was like playing a high-tech Bop It, and the reward was sending an autonomous airplane with fixed wings almost seven feet long that was fired from its metal runway to the sky.
I am on the new Zipline test site of the new Zipline company in the Central Valley of California to see the new vehicle I was unveiling: a white-winged, red-winged glider with a 10-foot wingspan designed to launch packets of air medical supplies halfway. The buttons are in a metal control box mounted on a clear plastic shield that sits between my face and the drone. "Do not feel like you're in a hurry," says Jeff Farr, a Zipline flight attendant, who wears a gray shirt with "Zipline" stamped on his chest. In fact, everyone who works at the company's bright white launch center has almost the same shirt, only in different colors.
With a sound like a massive zip unzipping, the drone fires along a sloping metal track. The car that propels the unmanned aircraft down the runway brakes at the end, pulling the aircraft forward and into the air. I keep pressing the blue button for a few more seconds, letting the car, now empty, almost like a coffin, go back to its starting point.

Photo: Zipline

All I did was press a button, but I could feel the power of the launch system when the drone slid along it. For Dan Czerwonka, who works in the company's global operations team, the experience convinced him to have found his place. When he first visited Zipline, "they let me throw one and I got hooked." I was like, & # 39; I have to work here & # 39; "he says." I was like, "They're changing the world, saving lives." And I literally did everything I could to get in. "
Czerwonka's enthusiasm makes me feel jaded because I had spent the day without waiting to be impressed. Medical care is difficult: it is fragmented, it is expensive and it has to deal with complicated problems of human biology and behavior. Even the well-intentioned move to make electronic health records fail, resulting in poorly designed interfaces that, in rare cases, can be dangerous. After all, this technology is responsible for the lives of people.

Photo: Zipline

A previous generation of these drones has been delivering donor blood for transfusions in Rwanda since October 2016. Zipline is also working on the creation of a launch center in Tanzania, reports MIT Technology Review. But Zipline still does not operate in the United States. The company expects the Federal Aviation Administration to give them early permission to start flying in several different locations, including Nevada and North Carolina.
His newest test site in the United States had not been easy to find. The base of Zipline is located in Half Moon Bay, along the coast. His new facility was inside, and after stumbling on a single-lane dirt road for a couple of miles, he was lost. Then I called Justin Hamilton, who does public relations for the company and was my only contact there. He told me he probably was not lost, just before the call was canceled. Without service The dirt road continued in a dusty parking lot, and I went out to find a cell phone service or a landline. A reception bar blinked on my cell phone and I called Hamilton again. I really was not lost, he told me. I should continue driving until I reached what looked like a moon base.
So I kept driving. A white, vaulted structure with antennae rising above it and a mobile office building appeared in front. It really looked like a lunar base had been dropped in the green field. Inside, the drones themselves were lined up in an unworthy line, their tails in the air and their bellies exposed. The flaps that open to allow the medical supply packages to parachute to Earth were in sight.

Flight operator Jeff Farr helps me take one of Zipline's drones to the launch pad. Photo by Dan Czerwonka / Zipline

With their wings removed and stacked on a rack, the bodies of the styrofoam-drones looked like descendants of huge sports fish and disposable ice chests. The resemblance became even stranger when the drones "landed" outside the lunar base flying towards what looked like a huge trapeze, hooking their tails into a cable. Once hooked, the drones swayed back and forth until they finally stopped, hanging upside down until someone in a Zipline shirt regained them.
Farr says the company's mission had attracted him. He had been running an aerial photography business, he says, "and I had a good business until I read an online headline that read:" Our drones save lives ". He assembled a portfolio, applied for a Zipline job, and has been with the company since 2016. "It's a bit different to get a package that is cold because it contains a lot of blood," he says. "And knowing that that plane goes flying will go to a hospital for a reason, and that's to save a life."

Video by Rachel Becker / The Verge

The team uses blood packets to test their delivery drones, but they are full of water, not real things, I realize when Farr looks at me inside the blood cooler. Czerwonka leads me and another journalist along the bumpy dirt road to the place where the drones practice releasing their packages with parachutes. The field is covered with tracks and mounds of dry manure. A drone flies, and, midway through the flight, its belly opens and a pack flips. Your parachute unfolds, but the pack still hits when it hits the ground.
Back at the launch center, I sit down with Zipline's CEO, Keller Rinaudo, next to a television screen that shows the spirals of the preprogrammed flight paths of the drones. We paused our conversation each time another drone buzzes around the metal track behind me.

Video by Dan Czerwonka / Zipline

Rinaudo talks about Zipline a little differently than his colleagues. Of course, he is big on drones saving lives too, but he also gets scared when reinventing the supply chain and altering medical logistics, phrases that would only be exciting for someone truly integrated in that field. Discards medical logistics companies that had never heard, and repeats: "Things are not rocket science." I say it seems a little close. "I think it's something close," he says, and looks for another metaphor: "It's not like we're trying to introduce a new drug into the United States."
At first, critics said that what Zipline does would not be possible, Rinaudo tells me. His reaction was simple: "Then we built it and we made it work," he says. Then, the criticism changed: deliveries of drones would never work reliably. "Then we had a distribution center that made 100 flights in a day," he says. But who would pay for that? "We signed a commercial contract with the government of Rwanda," he says. The latest criticism is that deliveries of medical supply drones are not relevant here in the US. UU Rinaudo has a strong response to that, too: "I'm saying, I bet you live in a city."

I take the drone to its position after recovering it. Photo by Dan Czerwonka / Zipline

It is true: mortality rates are higher for people in rural areas, probably partly because they have less access to preventive and trauma centers. "Everyone on the planet should have access to decent medical care, and today we have the technology to solve that problem," says Rinaudo. "If you have an instant delivery of hamburgers," he says, "you should receive an immediate supply of medications."
But an unmanned aircraft, even a fleet of them, will not solve the health care deserts of rural America. Of course, autonomous vehicles can deliver emergency medical supplies to a remote location. But most of the time, trained health workers will still have to be available to administer them. And those are few and far between rural communities, where less than 10 percent of physicians in the US. UU They practice, according to the Stanford Medicine rural health fact sheet. Lack of transportation can also prevent people from reaching medical care, no matter how well-stocked those facilities are. Unless the drone has a saddle, it is probably not a problem that can be solved.
Even so, at the end of my visit, I got into my car and went down the dirt road, wondering if they had chosen their new location as part of the show: a practical example of how delivering drones could be a better strategy. that deliveries by car, one day.

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