Logistics startup Zipline has flown more than 38 million miles with its autonomous electric delivery drones since the company was founded in 2014. Zipline launched its first fleet in Rwanda, delivering blood and other medical supplies to clinics and hospitals. Since then, the Silicon Valley startup has expanded its services to six other countries, with limited delivery services and distribution centers in three states.
On Wednesday, Zipline unveiled its next-generation aircraft, which it hopes will make quick air deliveries a daily convenience for customers across the U.S., even in densely populated urban areas.
Dubbed the Platform 2 or P2 Zip, Zipline’s new drone is capable of carrying cargo weighing up to eight pounds within a ten-mile radius and can land a package on a place as small as a table or a doorstep.
“The reason this number is important,” says Zipline CEO and co-founder Keller Rynaud Clifton, “is that if you look at e-commerce in the U.S., the vast majority of packages are five pounds or less.”
Zipline Co-Founders, CEO Keller Rynaud Clifton and CTO Keenan Vriobek
The P2 Zip can travel ten miles in ten minutes, and the company can make a delivery about seven times faster than any conventional service you can order today, the CEO said. Rapid delivery by drones could put an end to “doorway pirates,” said Rinaud Clifton, referring to the theft of packages left on doorsteps when a customer is out.
While Zipline’s original drone, the P1 Zip, is a fixed-wing or glider design, the P2 uses both pitching and cruising propellers and a fixed wing. This helps it maneuver precisely and quietly, even in rainy or windy weather.
To deliver the goods to the customer’s door, the P2 Zip hovers about 300 feet above ground level and dispatches a kind of mini-plane and container called a “droid.” The droid descends on a long, thin cable and quietly maneuvers itself into place using fan-like motors before settling down to retrieve the package.
The original Zipline P1 drones will remain in production and will be widely used, says Rynaud Clifton. The P1 Zip can fly long distances, delivering up to five pounds of cargo within a 60-mile radius, but it requires more space to take off, land, and “drop.”
The P1 Zip allows cargo to descend with a parachute attached, so its payload lands in a space roughly the size of two parking spaces. Once the P1 Zip returns to base, the employee must disassemble it, then set up a new one, discarding the newly charged battery for the next flight.
Zipline’s new P2 Zip can dock and charge autonomously on a charging station that looks like a street lamp with a handle and a large disc attached to that arm:
A rendering of P2 Zips charging on the dock.
Zipline docks can be installed in a single parking space or adjacent to a building depending on zoning and permits. Zipline envisions docks set up at restaurants in a downtown shopping district or along the exterior wall of a hospital, where a droid can be inserted into a window or chest, retrieved and reloaded by medical staff on the premises.
Setting up one of these docking stations takes about as much work as installing an electric car charger, Rinaud Clifton said.
Prior to the development of P2 Zip, Zipline had already established logistics networks in Ivory Coast, Ghana, Japan, Kenya, Nigeria and Rwanda. It operates some drone delivery networks in the US, North Carolina, Arkansas and Utah, but P2 will help expand that network.
Partners that plan to test deliveries through P2 Zip include fast-food restaurant Sweetgreen, Intermountain Health in Salt Lake City, Michigan Medicine, Multicare Healthcare System in Tacoma, Washington, and the government of Rwanda.
Zipline is not alone in its ambitions. Zipline is part of a program with other startups like DroneUp and Flytrex to deliver for Walmart. Amazon, meanwhile, has been working to make drone deliveries a reality here for nearly a decade, though the business has struggled to overcome a thicket of regulation and low demand from test customers.
The goal is silence and greenery
Zipline’s head of engineering, Jo Mardal, told CNBC that the company has focused much of its engineering on making sure the drones are not only safe and energy-efficient, but also quiet enough for residents to enjoy using them.
“People are worried about the noise, it’s fair. I am concerned about the noise. I don’t want to live in a world where a bunch of loud planes fly over my house,” he said. “Success for us looks like being in the background, barely being heard.” That is, something more like the rustling of leaves than a passing car.
The P2 Zip droid component is designed to enter distribution centers through a small portal where it is loaded with goods for delivery.
The P2 Zips have a unique propeller design that makes this possible, Mardal explained, adding, “The fact that the Zip delivers from 300 feet helps a lot.”
Mardal and Rynaud Clifton emphasized that Zipline aims to have a net positive impact on the environment while giving businesses a better way to transport everything from hot meals to chilled vaccines to customers.
Drones, they explained, avoid worsening traffic jams by flying overhead. And because Zipline drones are electric, they can run on renewable or clean energy without the emissions from burning jet fuel, gasoline, or diesel.
But most importantly, the CEO said, Zipline’s drone delivery allows companies to “centralize more inventory” and “dramatically reduce waste.”
A study published by the Lancet found that hospitals using Zipline services were able to reduce their total annual blood waste by 67%, the CEO boasted.
“That’s a staggering statistic, and it’s a really big deal. It’s saving health systems millions of dollars by reducing inventory at the last mile and only sending it when it’s needed.”
Zipline aims to bring these efficiencies to all corners of commerce, the CEO said. It also aims to keep the cost of drone delivery competitive with existing services, e.g FedEx and KBSor food delivery apps like Uber There is also Instacart.
But first this year, the startup plans to conduct more than 10,000 test flights using about 100 of the new P2 Zips. With its existing P1 drones, Zipline is already on track to complete about 1 million deliveries by the end of 2023, and by 2025 plans to fly more flights annually than most commercial airlines.