Zipline wants to green last-mile delivery with drones
March 15, 2023 Updated Wed., March 15, 2023 at 6:49 p.m.
Drone delivery startup Zipline is planning a new service that will enable restaurants, grocers, pharmacies and other retailers to deliver directly to customers’ yards. The system, which the company announced publicly on Wednesday and plans to launch by early next year, is designed to replicate the experience of ordering from Doordash or UberEats, except without cars – and the emissions that come with them.
“Using a 3,000-pound gas vehicle to deliver something that weighs five pounds is ultra bad from an emissions perspective,” says Keller Rinaudo Cliffton, Zipline’s co-founder and chief executive officer. “We think it’s really important that this service be offered in a way that is actually good for the environment.”
To deliver a package, a drone – or “zip,” as the company calls it – hovers at about 300 feet above ground and lowers a tether, at the end of which is a container (“droid”) about the size of a cat carrier. Made from lightweight foam with a plastic shell, the droid uses fans to hold steady as well as cameras and other sensors to avoid obstacles as it descends. Once it touches down on a lawn, walkway or porch, a hatch in the bottom opens to deposit the cargo, a process that Zipline co-founder and Chief Technology Officer Keenan Wyrobek says is “whisper quiet.”
The drone then pulls the droid back to its belly and returns to the restaurant, warehouse or store, where it recharges at a dock installed on the wall or roof. When the next order comes in – via app software provided by Zipline – the drone lowers its droid through a portal built into a wall, where workers can open its lid, load it and send it on its way again.
In Zipline’s vision, this zip-droid-and-portal combo will be serving millions of U.S. households within a couple of years. Michigan Medicine, the University of Michigan’s medical center in Ann Arbor, has signed on to begin using the service to deliver specialty injectable drugs to patients in 2024. Salad chain Sweetgreen is also among the first customers.
But before South San Francisco-based Zipline can reach its goal of serving customers nationwide, drone rules will have to catch up – a process that has so far proved arduous as regulators work through thorny questions about noise, privacy and safety. In May 2022, a rule-making committee at the Federal Aviation Administration established a pathway to begin allowing drone operators to fly beyond the line of sight of observers stationed on the ground, a step that Zipline has argued is critical to unlocking the benefits of drones.
At the outset, Zipline’s new drones would be limited to flying within line of sight, though the company says it is expecting to be able to remove the visual observer requirement for its existing U.S. operations later this year.
Zipline, which has raised more than $550 million in venture funding to date according to data from PitchBook, faces deep-pocketed rivals in the race to conquer the U.S. drone delivery market. Amazon.com has been developing its own service, Prime Air, for a decade. Alphabet’s Wing launched the largest test program in the U.S. in suburban Dallas last year. And United Parcel Service is also testing drones. These three, along with Zipline, are so far the only drone operators to receive FAA certification as air carriers.
Zipline has taken an indirect route to cracking the U.S. market. It made its first delivery in Rwanda in the fall of 2016 – dropping a bag of blood at a hospital in the Muhanga district – and has since expanded operations on the continent to Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya and the Ivory Coast, where it carries vaccines and other medical supplies to thousands of clinics. For these customers, drones have provided a way to leapfrog into the era of on-demand logistics without paving roads. A study by researchers at the Wharton School last year found that Zipline’s work with blood-transfusion centers in Rwanda resulted in an 88% reduction in hospital deaths due to postpartum hemorrhage.
For Zipline, that work also provided a chance to hone and prove its technology for the U.S. drone-delivery market. In 2020, the company launched its first U.S. pilot program in North Carolina; it has since added services in Utah and in Arkansas, where it’s currently testing home delivery for Walmart. Last year, Zipline also began delivering medical supplies to Japan’s Gotō Islands.
For all of these flights, the basics of Zipline’s system have thus far stayed the same: Fixed-wing drones launch from catapults, cruise to targets as far as 60 miles away, drop their payloads by parachute and then return to distribution hubs, where wires snatch them out of the sky. The company plans to continue using this technology for its long-range operations, while the new system provides shorter-range service (a 10-mile radius) in more densely populated areas.
Ditching the parachute for a tether will allow Zipline to deliver in tighter spaces. The droid can land within an area the size of a tabletop, the company says, whereas the parachutes need about two parking spots worth of space. Replacing delivery hubs with on-site docks also cuts down on infrastructure and labor costs. On the flip side, taking off and landing without the help of catapults and wires requires lots of power, as does hovering mid-flight. Those maneuvers will drain the drone’s battery more quickly.
Still, Zipline’s newest drone – a quadcopter and fixed-wing hybrid similar to that used by Wing – is more efficient on a per-mile basis than a gas or electric car. The drone and droid together weigh about 50 pounds and carry a payload of 6 to 8 pounds at speeds of up to 70 miles per hour on a roughly one-kilowatt-hour battery. Zipline estimates that its drones reduce the carbon emissions of deliveries by nearly 98% compared to gas cars and emits up to 30 times less carbon per mile than the average electric vehicle. According to its own analysis of its operations in Rwanda in 2021, Zipline’s drone deliveries produced 0.73 metric tons of CO2 per month. To do the same work, the company estimated an electric vehicle would have produced 11.51 metric tons of CO2 and a combustion-engine car 41.75 metric tons.
Without extensive real-world data, the emissions associated with drone delivery are difficult to measure.
With its new service, Zipline is going after one of the least efficient corners of last-mile logistics: the so-called instant delivery of groceries, meals and other daily goods, where cars often drive both to pick up and drop off small parcels one at a time. Delivery apps like DoorDash, Uber Eats and Instacart saw exponential growth in demand during the pandemic, leading venture capitalists to pour billions of dollars into quick commerce startups such as Gopuff and Getir. But these enterprises have so far proven largely unprofitable .
Zipline hopes to solve both problems by removing drivers and cars from the equation. “If you’re thinking instant delivery is going to go away, then you’re not looking at the data,” says Rinaudo Cliffton. “Humans want things quickly and efficiently. And they don’t want to inconvenience themselves by walking or driving.”
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