A year ago, we visited Rwanda to see how Zipline’s autonomous, fixed-wing delivery drones were providing blood to hospitals and clinics across the country. We were impressed with both Zipline’s system design (involving dramatic catapult launches, parachute drops, and mid-air drone catching), as well as their model of operations, which minimizes waste while making critical supplies available in minutes almost anywhere in the country.
Since then, Zipline has expanded into Ghana, and has plans to start flying in India as well, but the COVID-19 pandemic is changing everything. Africa is preparing for the worst, while in the United States, Zipline is working with the Federal Aviation Administration to try and expedite safety and regulatory approvals for an emergency humanitarian mission with the goal of launching a medical supply delivery network that could help people maintain social distancing or quarantine when necessary by delivering urgent medication nearly to their doorsteps.
In addition to its existing role delivering blood products and medication, Zipline is acting as a centralized distribution network for COVID-19 supplies in Ghana and Rwanda. Things like personal protective equipment (PPE) will be delivered as needed by drone, ensuring that demand is met across the entire healthcare network. This has been a problem in the United States—getting existing supplies where they’re needed takes a lot of organization and coordination, which the US government is finding to be a challenge.
Zipline says that their drones are able to reduce human involvement in the supply chain (a vector for infection), while reducing hospital overcrowding by making it more practical for non-urgent patients to receive care in local clinics closer to home. COVID-19 is also having indirect effects on healthcare, with social distancing and community lockdowns straining blood supplies. With its centralized distribution model, Zipline has helped Rwanda to essentially eliminate wasted (expired) blood products. “We probably waste more blood [in the United States] than is used in all of Rwanda,” Zipline CEO Keller Rinaudo told us. But it’s going to take more than blood supply to fight COVID-19, and it may hit Africa particularly hard.
“Things are earlier in Africa, you don’t see infections at the scale that we’re seeing in the U.S.,” says Rinaudo. “I also think Africa is responding much faster. Part of that is the benefit of seeing what’s happening in countries that didn’t take it seriously in the first few months where community spreading gets completely out of control. But it’s quite possible that COVID is going to be much more severe in countries that are less capable of locking down, where you have densely populated areas with people who can’t just stay in their house for 45 days.”
In an attempt to prepare for things getting worse, Rinaudo says that Zipline is stocking as many COVID-related products as possible, and they’re also looking at whether they’ll be able to deliver to neighborhood drop-off points, or perhaps directly to homes. “That’s something that Zipline has been on track to do for quite some time, and we’re considering ways of accelerating that. When everyone’s staying at home, that’s the ideal time for robots to be making deliveries in a contactless way.” This kind of system, Rinaudo points out, would also benefit people with non-COVID healthcare needs, who need to do their best to avoid hospitals. If a combination of telemedicine and home or neighborhood delivery of medical supplies means they can stay home, it would be a benefit for everyone. “This is a transformation of the healthcare system that’s already happening and needs to happen anyway. COVID is just accelerating it.”
“When everyone’s staying at home, that’s the ideal time for robots to be making deliveries in a contactless way”
—Keller Rinaudo, Zipline
For the past year, Zipline, working closely with the FAA, has been planning on a localized commercial trial of a medical drone delivery service that was scheduled to begin in North Carolina this fall. While COVID is more urgent, the work that’s already been done towards this trial puts Zipline in a good position to move quickly, says Rinaudo.
“All of the work that we did with the IPP [UAS Integration Pilot Program] is even more important, given this crisis. It means that we’ve already been working with the FAA in detail, and that’s made it possible for us to have a foundation to build on to help with the COVID-19 response.” Assuming that Zipline and the FAA can find a regulatory path forward, the company could begin setting up distribution centers that can support hospital networks for both interfacility delivery as well as contactless delivery to (eventually) neighborhood points and perhaps even homes. “It’s exactly the use case and value proposition that I was describing for Africa,” Rinaudo says.
Leveraging rapid deployment experience that it has from work with the U.S. Department of Defense, Zipline would launch one distribution center within just a few months of a go-ahead from the FAA. This single distribution center could cover an area representing up to 10 million people. “We definitely want to move quickly here,” Rinaudo tells us. Within 18 months, Zipline could theoretically cover the entire US, although he admits “that would be an insanely fast roll-out.”
The question, at this point, is how fast the FAA can take action to make innovative projects like this happen. Zipline, as far as we can tell, is ready to go. We did also ask Rinaudo if he thought that hospitals specifically, and the medical system in general, has the bandwidth to adopt a system like Zipline’s in the middle of a pandemic that’s already stretching people and resources to the limit.
“In the U.S. there’s this sense that this technology is impossible, whereas it’s already operating at multi-national scale, serving thousands of hospitals and health facilities, and it’s completely boring to the people who are benefiting from it,” Rinaudo says. “People in the U.S. have really not caught on that this is something that’s reliable and can dramatically improve our response to crises like this.”