Zipline, the world’s largest drone logistics service, announced a short-route delivery system on Wednesday designed to let customers in multiple US cities receive prescriptions, lab tests or even custom-made salads within minutes.
The California-based start-up, which has completed more than a half million deliveries since its founding in 2014, said it has partnered with three US hospitals in three states — plus Sweetgreen, a salad restaurant chain — to launch a home delivery service that can make a 10-mile trip in 10 minutes.
The promise of rapid drone delivery goes back years but has a spotty record. Jeff Bezos predicted a decade ago that the sky would be filled with Amazon drones within five years, but technical challenges have prevented that from happening.
Most other projects are in a beta stage, although Wing, a unit of Google parent Alphabet, recently claimed it can now deliver up to 1,000 packages a day in the select areas where it is operating, and has ambitions of increasing that into the millions over the next 18 months.
Since 2016 Zipline has been delivering packages to destinations more than 100km away, with the bulk of its operations in Ghana, Nigeria and Rwanda, where doctors can order medical supplies via text message and dispatch emergency blood deliveries at 100km per hour.
The private start-up, worth nearly $3bn, launched emergency operations in the US in 2020 to supply medical supplies for healthcare workers. It also worked with Pfizer to deliver Covid-19 vaccines.
Zipline, which is backed by Baillie Gifford, Temasek and Fidelity, among others, plans to do more than 10,000 test flights before deploying the new service early next year for its first partners in Ann Arbor, Michigan; Tacoma, Washington; and Salt Lake City, Utah.
The new service is based on its P2 Zip drone, an autonomous winged aircraft that has the ability to hover in the sky above its destination. It sends the package down in a self-propelled droid capable of pinpointing its landing to an area as small as a patio table.
“This new delivery experience works for a tiny backyard, a small patio, a stoop, or a small courtyard of a building,” said Keenan Wyrobek, Zipline’s technology chief.
The group flies Zips in seven countries, including three US states. It has partnered with Walmart to allow customers in suburban Arkansas to order rotisserie chickens to their backyard.
The new system’s precision is expected to take Zips into “more complex environments and over more highly populated areas”, said Okeoma Moronu, head of regulatory affairs. She added that the drones are nearly inaudible — like “wind-rustling leaves” — and said delivery times will be up to seven times faster than car delivery.
Among the three new hospital partners is Michigan Medicine, an institution at the University of Michigan, which said it expects to at least double the number of prescriptions it fills each year for patients because of the service.
“We estimate that once Zipline launches, most of our patients will be able to have their prescriptions delivered in just a few minutes,” said Marschall Runge, chief executive of Michigan Medicine. “That’s an absolute game changer for people with conditions like diabetes, where going without medicine for even an hour could turn serious.”