Special Video Series Agents of Change

The drones airdropping medicine from the sky are coming to America

Zipline’s autonomous drones are making medicine more accessible all over the world.

AT A GLANCE:


  • Billions of people around our world struggle to get access to medical essentials like blood and vaccines, due in part to a lack of sufficient infrastructure.
  • Zipline has created drones to bring medical supplies to vulnerable patients.
  • The waterproof glider drones have a wingspan of 12 feet and a payload capacity of nearly four pounds and they execute their missions without the use of a pilot.

Billions of people around our world struggle to get access to medical essentials like blood and vaccines, due in part to a lack of sufficient infrastructure. But these last-leg delivery logistics problems are melting away thanks to a company called Zipline.

Zipline is a medical drone delivery startup based out of South San Francisco, Calif. The company was founded in 2014 with the aim of solving the world’s most complex medical access challenges by using their autonomous drone delivery system. Although their headquarters is situated in the heart of Silicon Valley, their work began in Rwanda.

“We started in Rwanda for two reasons,” Zipline Co-Founder Keenan Wyrobek told The Hill. “The value we can provide with this logistics service is incredibly high, and the public health system of Rwanda is incredibly data driven and innovative. They had the wherewithal to make a very data driven decision in a complex health system and to very clearly understand for themselves why this kind of on-demand medical supply logistics is transformative for their health care, and economics of their health care system. That’s why we launched in Rwanda.”

When a mother is bleeding out during childbirth, readily available blood reserves are critical to saving her life. And in many areas outside of Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, Zipline drones are providing a solution to getting these mothers the lifesaving blood they need in a timely manner. Zipline orders are filled fast. Distribution centers can get a drone in the air less than five minutes after receiving an order on their app. 

Through the use of a slingshot launching system, Zipline drones reach their cruising velocity of 60 mph in just .3 seconds and can glide for more than 100 miles, creating a delivery range of 50 miles from the distribution center.

The waterproof fixed-wing aircraft has a wingspan of 12 feet and a payload capacity of nearly four pounds and they execute their missions without the use of a pilot. The drones use a GPS system to autonomously navigate between the drop zones and distribution centers. As a result of their glider design, they use less energy to fly faster and farther than most of their quad-copter drone competitors.

But over the past decade, we’ve seen major US corporations have limited success in folding drone delivery services into their operations. Whether it be food delivery companies or e-commerce corporations, the years of drone delivery promises and beta tests have yet to be actualized into a commercially viable reality. So why is Zipline not only succeeding, but expanding rapidly from their birthplace in Rwanda, to territories like India and the United States? 

“Starting Zipline for me started with following this really simple advice that I had never actually followed in my career before,” says Wyrobek, “which was to get out in the world and find real humans with a meaningful problem you want to solve before you do any technology development.”

This kind of problem-solving philosophy is integral to the success of the company. Where e-commerce giants and food delivery services have tried to implement drones as a way to speed up an already speedy delivery process, Zipline used their drones to solve a problem only their drones could. And U.S. companies have taken notice.

They’ve already partnered with companies like Walmart, Intermountain Health, and Magellen RX Management to set up distribution centers in Arkansas and North Carolina.

They are equipped to serve vulnerable U.S. patients in need of timely home delivery, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. At the time of filming, Zipline had made more than 265,000 successful drone deliveries.

“In the years to come, we’ll get to the point where you can [order an airdrop] right from your own phone if you [fall off] your mountain bike ride,” says Wyrobek. “That’s absolutely where we’re headed.”