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The Health-Care Startup That’s Fast-Tracking Drone Delivery

Zipline, which operates a fleet of more than 100 medical supply drones in Africa, could soon be moving medical supplies in the U.S.

A Zipline drone drops its payload.

A Zipline drone drops its payload.

Credit: Zipline Inc.

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In early March, a hospital in Rwanda needed blood urgently for a patient with a leg injury. The patient’s blood type was not in stock and the nearest supplies were at least a half day’s drive away. So the hospital called upon a drone operated by Zipline Inc., which dropped the blood by parachute within an hour.

Zipline, a California startup founded in 2014, makes hundreds of deliveries per week to hospitals and clinics in Rwanda and Ghana. Its drones launch from catapults at six distribution centers, carrying blood, medicine, and other supplies, a few pounds at a time. The fixed-wing, battery-powered planes cruise at 60 mph, navigate by GPS, and can fly up to 100 miles round trip. Wires snag them from the sky upon return. Each distribution hub has a fleet of about thirty and can supply an area of 8,000 square miles, delivering up to two tons of freight over the course of a week. Since it began service in 2016, Zipline has flown over a million miles and made more than 60,000 drops.