Zipline has been saving lives in rural Africa since October 2016. Now, the drone delivery startup is launching a revamped fleet that will make it the fastest drone delivery service in the world, it says, increasing its potential output by a factor of ten.
While the likes of Facebook, Google, and Amazon have talked up drone deliveries for years, publicised test flights, and filed patent after patent, fixed-wing drone startup Zipline has been quietly getting on with it in real-world applications.
Since October 2016, the Californian company has completed over 4,000 flights in the skies over Rwanda, ferrying blood, vaccines, and essential medicines from the capital, Kigali, to locations that are often inaccessible by road, thanks to either poor infrastructure or challenging weather conditions.
In August 2017, the company expanded into East African neighbour Tanzania, and scaled up its operations. At the time, Zipline CEO Keller Rinaudo said, “Millions of people across the world die each year because they can’t get the medicine they need when they need it.
“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.”
The world’s fastest commercial service
Daily flights in rural Africa – an environment of low regulation but high necessity – have given the Zipline team plenty of opportunities to streamline processes and test out new ideas.
Since setting up in Rwanda, Zipline has revamped its entire logistics system and redesigned its fixed-wing drones. This evolution in the company’s distribution processes and aircraft has helped to reduce the time from receiving an order to dispatching it from ten minutes down to just one.
Zipline’s new drones can fly at 80 mph for 100 miles while carrying 3.8 pounds of medical supplies. With this increased range and speed, and better support systems in place, Zipline can now fly 500 flights a day out of a single centre, rather than 50.
Targeting domestic deliveries
To date, Zipline’s technology has broken through where it has been needed most. But delivery services in the US represent a potential new market, particularly considering that most of Zipline’s competitors have little to no real-world experience.
That said, the fixed-wing nature of its drones mean that they are ideally suited for long-distance urban to rural deliveries, rather than services within cities. By contrast, most rotary-winged drones can only fly relatively short distances, because they use up most of their power in staying aloft, and hovering to deliver goods.
The American Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Unmanned Aircraft System Integration Pilot Program is now set to allow private companies, along with state and local governments, more room to experiment with drone technologies.
Strict US regulations regarding commercial drone flights are one of the reasons that some companies have tested their technologies overseas – alongside delivering life-saving supplies, in the case of Zipline.
As part of its new programme, the FAA is expected to waive altitude and ‘beyond visual line of sight’ (BVLOS) regulations, among others, for up to five select commercial proposals.
Zipline is among the companies vying for those opportunities. CEO Rinaudo has confirmed talks with six US states and multiple healthcare companies with a view to putting a proposal in front of the FAA.
If selected, Zipline could soon be delivering medical supplies on home soil in the US.
Internet of Business says
While delivering trainers or jeans might seem to be a matter of life or death to impatient shoppers, Zipline has hit on the one application that actually is: delivering essential medicines and blood supplies. These are not just for treating diseases, but also for tackling problems such as postpartum haemorrhaging in new mothers, which causes millions of needless deaths worldwide, including many in the US.
This is why Zipline describes itself as “a company with a social mission”, and says that it “wanted to build technology that could help save someone’s life”.
But it would be a mistake to view the company’s programmes in Rwanda and elsewhere as examples of a Western organisation stepping in from outside to fix a poor nation’s problems. Rwanda is one of the world’s most progressive countries – it is the only nation in the world with 50-plus percent representation of women in parliament, for example – and has worked hard at being a hub for technology innovation. It is an active participant in these projects, and not a passive recipient of Western aid.
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