This is how you launch a blood-delivering drone

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'm on the new Zipline launch pad in the Central Valley of California to see the new vehicle I was unveiling: a white-winged, red-winged glider, powered by batteries with a 10-foot wingspan designed for fall packs of medical supplies air in the middle of the flight. 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 uses the same shirt, only in different colors.

With a sound like a massive zipper that decompresses, the drone fires along a sloping metal track. The car that propels the unmanned airplane 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 was compressed 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 literally I did everything I could to get in. "

Czerwonka's enthusiasm makes me feel jaded because I had spent the day without expecting to be impressed Medical care is difficult: it is isolated, 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 supplying donor blood for transfusions in Rwanda since October 2016 . Zipline is also working on the creation of a center for launch in Tanzania, reports from MIT Technology Review but Zipline still does not operate in the US The company expects The Federal Aviation Administration gives them early permission to start flying in several different places, including Nevada and North Carolina.

Your 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 that he probably was not lost, just before the call fell. Without service The dirt road continued in a dusty parking lot, and I went out to look for 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 antennas rising above it and a mobile office building in front appeared. 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 shelf, the bodies of the drones looked like the offspring of massive sport fish and disposable ice chests. The resemblance became even stranger when the drones "landed" outside the lunar base flying in what looked like a huge trapeze, hooking their tails on 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 prove their delivery drones, but they are full of water, not the real things, I realize when Farr took a look inside the refrigerator blood. Czerwonka leads me and another journalist along the bumpy dirt road to the place where 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 showing 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. He dismisses medical logistics companies that he had never heard of, and repeats: "Things are not rocket science." I tell him he seems close. "I think is something similar," 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 also has a blunt response to that: "I say, 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 a drone, even a fleet of them, will not repair 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.

Still, at the end of my visit, I get in my car and return along the dirt road, wondering if they chose their new location as part of the show: a practical example of how drones delivery could really be a better one strategy that the deliveries in car, a day.

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