It took drone delivery pioneer Zipline, which specializes in sending medical supplies autonomously over long distances, nearly three years to create its first countrywide network. Launched in Rwanda in 2016, the San Francisco–based company now transports roughly 75% of the country’s blood supply outside its capital city, Kigali. In May 2019, Zipline moved into Ghana—and in less than a year reached 2,000 hospitals, covering 12 million people. “We knew how to work with [the country’s] civil aviation regulator, integrate with the public healthcare supply chain, set up distribution centers, and run maintenance [on the drones],” says cofounder and CEO Keller Rinaudo. Zipline also develops its own hardware, avionics, and flight-control algorithms, which allows it to iterate on its technology. (It debuted a new drone model at the end of 2019.) The company is now applying its knowledge around the globe: It’s launching in India later this year, and has recently been tapped by Novant Health to bring medical supplies to areas in North Carolina. Here’s how the Ghana network operates:
1. Distribution Center
Each of Zipline’s three distribution centers in Ghana employs roughly 24 people, operates a fleet of 30 drones, and carries some 150 different medical supplies, including blood products and vaccines. (A fourth center is under construction.) After a hospital places an order via SMS or WhatsApp, fulfillment center workers pack supplies (each drone can carry up to 1.8 kilograms, or two orders, of blood) and hand them over to flight operators who prepare the vehicle, adding the supply box, wings, and rechargeable battery to the basic carbon-fiber frame.
Each package is given a QR code indicating its destination. (The company’s flight routes have all been preapproved by Ghana’s civil aviation authority.) Zipline operators scan the code, telling the drone where to fly, and pack the box aboard the aircraft. A catapult-launch system then sends the drone into the sky. Zipline’s latest model can fly up to 100 miles round trip and go as fast as 80 miles per hour. A series of automatic notifications keeps the hospital informed of the drone’s arrival time.
The average time from order to delivery in Ghana is 30 to 40 minutes. As a drone approaches a hospital, it descends (but does not land), and the aircraft’s cargo-bay doors open to release the medical-supply box, which parachutes down.
The drone flies back to its distribution center, where a wire set 15 feet above the ground catches its tail and pulls it safely to the ground. It is then collected and readied for its next flight.
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A version of this article appeared in the March/April 2020 issue of Fast Company magazine.