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Zipline Drones to Serve 10,000 Locations This Year

Zipline’s amazing delivery drone technology, which launched in Rwanda six years ago, has now made over a half a million deliveries of life-saving supplies in several African nations and Japan.

Currently, Zipline drones deliver to 3,000 hospitals around the world, and the company plans to serve 10,000 locations by the end of the year.  Its sights are set on active drone delivery systems for a variety of purposes in the U.S. by the end of 2023.

Video Spotlight:  

This post is based on the YouTube video by creator Mark Rober, listed in the Spotlight.  Image source: REUTERS/James Akena/Alamy Stock Photo

Discussion Questions:

1. How does the design of the Zipline drone match its strategy for use in Rwanda versus the U.S.?  How does the design overcome obstacles in each country?

Guidance: For Rwanda, a mountainous country with difficult-to-navigate roads, a long-distance drone that could withstand inclement weather and still deliver in a timely and safe way were essential design features. The function, safety, cost, and quality of the drone were top priorities.

To enable the drone to fly round trip distances of 150 miles at speeds of up to 70 mph, Zipline built drones that look like planes or gliders and that launch from a large catapult.  Orders for blood or other critical supplies depart from one of two drone hubs within 90 seconds of being called in, and deliveries reach their destinations within 15 to 45 minutes.

When the drone reaches the destination, the package is dropped by parachute to the ground, where it is promptly retrieved by a hospital staff member. Then the drone returns to the launch site.

A Rwandan engineer played a critical role in the design and testing of the drone project, and his knowledge of the country as well as his scientific expertise helped the Zipline team develop the world’s first fully functioning widespread drone delivery system.

In the U.S., issues such as safety, noise, and package theft have been some of the key challenges faced by companies wanting to deliver by drone.

Distances need not necessarily be as great, as 90 percent of Americans live within 10 miles of a large retail store.  Here the design of the Zipline drone resembles the more typical quadcopter, but with some modifications that overcome some of the shortfalls of other drones. For inspiration, the design team looked at hummingbirds, which are able to fly and hover quietly.  This led to a unique wing design, and a much quieter, less annoying sound.

Parachuting a package to the ground is problematic in the U.S., with the potential to hit people, animals, or other objects upon landing.  A more precise method for package placement was needed.

The U.S. Zipline drone hovers high above the delivery location and lowers the package compartment to the ground on a wire.  Its delivery placement is extremely precise, and packages can be left safely in backyards, even on a table out of reach of pets, rather than out front.  This addresses concerns regarding the theft of the package as well as theft or vandalism of the drone itself. After releasing the actual product inside, the delivery capsule is lifted back up to the drone.

At 50 pounds, the U.S. version of the  drone is “mid-weight” compared to those of competitors, which may range from ten to 80 pounds.  They can travel up to ten miles round trip and can handle an eight pound payload.

2. In what ways are the U.S. Zipline drones more sustainable than more traditional deliveries by vehicle or other drones?

Guidance: Due to the unique “hummingbird wing” design, the noise pollution of Zipline’s U.S. drones is much lower than traditional quadcopter drones, which often have a loud or high-pitched hum.  In addition, Zipline’s drones are electric, autonomous, and produce zero emissions.

Currently, there are four billion doorstep deliveries in the U.S. each year, not including packages delivered by Amazon. Using drones to replace some of those could have a significant impact on fuel usage, air pollution, and road congestion, all while potentially reducing the cost of local deliveries.

Finally, due to the unique design of Zipline’s U.S. drones, orders do not need to be boxed in cardboard.  Rather, they can be in a simple paper bag, because the drone capsule protects the products while they are in flight and when they are gently lowered to the ground.

3. How is redundancy employed to keep drone deliveries safer?

Guidance: All critical systems on Zipline’s drones have backups.  If a propeller stops working on a U.S. Zipline drone, for instance, the large back propeller is able to keep the drone stable and in flight. To further insure against problems, the drone automatically deploys a parachute if it senses a problem or if the drone is unable to fly.

So far, there have been no injuries during the deliveries of over half a million packages and over 40 million miles of drone flights in the countries where Zipline’s delivery systems are in place.

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