It’s likely to be a while before Amazon drops off a pair of socks at your front door using a drone, but that’s not stopping other companies from embracing drone delivery in different ways. Zipline is setting up a network of autonomous drones in Rwanda to deliver blood, vaccines and medical supply to remote areas of the country. The startup said it will be able to deliver packages to the country’s 12 million citizens in 30 minutes once it begins rolling out its network in July.
Now shipping and logistics giant UPS wants to get involved. On Monday, the foundation arm of UPS announced it’s teaming up with Zipline and the Gavi Alliance, a public-private partnership group focused on immunizations in poor countries. The organizations said UPS will bring its expertise in logistics to help Zipline deliver temperature-sensitive vaccines and blood to remote areas. UPS will also be using the opportunity to closely observe Zipline’s approach to drone delivery.
At Zipline’s headquarters not far from the Pacific Ocean south of San Francisco, a group of reporters was invited to see the drones in action. The startup is testing its drones on expansive farm land of rolling grass fields dotted with cows. For now, it’s also doing all the manufacturing on-site and is building about 40 drones for the July launch in Rwanda.
Unlike the popular quadcopter drones, which rely on four propellers, Zipline’s drones are “fixed-wing,” meaning they glide on two wings. The drones fly autonomously by following a set path using GPS to track their position. They’re launched with a car-sized slingshot contraption from the ground. The Zipline drones make deliveries by dropping cargo with a parachute attached. Each drone can carry up to 3.3 pounds. The company plans on making up to 150 deliveries a day in Rwanda. Communities will be able to request deliveries through their phones — with either an app or a simple text message.
“It doesn’t matter if there’s washed-out roads, bridges or mountains in the way,” said Zipline cofounder and CEO Keller Rinaudo. “None of those are challenges to a system that can fly.”