In the healthcare sector, Zipline is a renowned name. Founded in 2014 by Keller Rinaudo and Keenan Wyrobek and headquartered in South San Francisco, the unicorn Zipline designs, manufactures and operates delivery drones. Its drones deliver medical products such as vaccines, common medicines, and infusions besides whole blood, platelets, frozen plasma, and cryoprecipitate. The company operates in seven countries. Zipline’s mission is to build a logistics system that serves people from all corners equally. In Rwanda, the startup has partnered with the government to deliver medical supplies. In Ghana, it handled Covid-19 vaccine distribution. In 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) used the facility in North Carolina.
How did the idea of Zipline happen? Keller and Keenan were passionate about the healthcare sector. They explored healthcare logistics, spending a good amount of time in Central America, and Africa. The time they spent in these locations interacting with people helped them zero in on the idea. They realised if they could provide a good solution for delivery, they could have an impact. That was the beginning of Zipline. They began operations in five countries. However, soon they realised that it was not feasible. So, they narrowed it down to three to serve well. Currently, Ziplineoperates in seven countries such as Ghana, Japan, United States. It has signed agreements to begin service in Nigeria, Cote d’Ivoire, and Kenya. In India, the Maharashtra government had also announced plans to use Zipline.
Zipline’s autonomous drones have delivered more than 4.5 million doses of critical medical supplies such as blood and COVID vaccines to millions of people. Zipline delivers 75% of Rwanda’s blood supply outside of its capital, Kigali. Healthcare workers can place orders via the app. The drones would drop the supplies via parachute. Each supply box can carry three pounds. The drones of Zipline have an easily replaceable battery for a quick turnaround between flights. They can fly safely on a single propeller or motor. They cruise at 101 km/h at an altitude of 80–120 metres above ground level. Deliveries are made within 45 minutes. Each distribution centre can make 500 deliveries per day. The drones are capable of “level 4” autonomy. They can complete travel autonomously under normal environmental conditions. There is also an option to control them manually. It has an inner carbon-fiber frame and an outer polystyrene shell. It is launched from a steel rail by an electric motor.
This has never been an easy task for the startup because the healthcare system differs from one country to another. They had to learn about a lot of things such as the purchasing mode of governments, and local healthcare systems. For instance, one country wanted them to deliver along with prescriptions to local health clinics in remote areas. Rwanda needed blood to hospitals. So, they had to change the functioning style accordingly. The most challenging part was the distance drones could cover. They thought they would need a 20 km service radius. Later, they realised that it was actually an 80 km service radius. Also, they needed a perfect system to handle blood delivery. For that, they did a study through Emory University where they got graduate students to donate blood and drop it off from buildings in Zipline’s packages. They monitored to ensure that the blood was not getting damaged. Because damaged blood can be lethal to patients.
In Zipline, they hire local talents. For instance, in Rwanda, the startup’s operations are handled by Rwandans. As of April 2022, its drones have made over 20 million miles of flights across 275,000 commercial deliveries. Besides medicines, the company also offers delivery services for restaurants, groceries, convenience shopping and e-commerce. In June 2021, Zipline raised $250 million in new funding at a valuation of $2.75 billion. In June 2022, the company announced a microphone-based collision avoidance system.