Zipline: The future is autonomous

Zipline, the company that’s been flying automated medical delivery missions in Africa since 2016, believes fully automated drone fleets are the future. It made its case during a keynote presentation at the online XPONENTIAL conference, running today through Thursday.

We’re big fans of Zipline and have been since the outset. The company has rapidly scaled to become the world’s largest automated delivery service, dispatching flights every four minutes or so from one of its bases. Of course, the company cut its teeth with deliveries in Rwanda before expanding to Ghana and, now, some deliveries in the United States.

After watching today’s presentation, there’s no denying the company has developed a really outstanding system for the dispatching and monitoring of drones at scale.


The company, if you’re not familiar, specializes in medical deliveries. It might be blood products, anti-venom serums for snake bites, antibiotics, or prescription medication. When the call comes in, the product is prepared for the payload, and the drone is dispatched. The fixed-wing vehicle flies to the location and releases the bundle with a small parachute. Its accuracy for the drop zone is consistently within roughly two parking spaces.

And, when it comes to rural delivery of vaccines – a huge issue during the global pandemic – Zipline solves multiple problems.

And it’s been doing this, with increasing regularity, since 2016. In the example you’re about to see, it’s clear how delivering by air offers significant advantages over delivery by ground:

That…is one slick system.

Not about drones

At today’s XPONENTIAL session, Zipline’s director of Global Aviation Policy, Harrison Wolf, says the success isn’t measured by the quality of the company’s fixed-wing drones.

“Drones are not important,” he said. “It’s what the outcome is that matters.” And Zipline’s system, he says, is “enabling access to rural communities…that haven’t traditionally had medicines or vaccines on-demand.”

Yes, the staff and systems Zipline has put in place have helped achieve these outcomes. But it’s really about automation and autonomy. Much of the success Zipline has enjoyed comes down to the fact it has been able to scale up the number of drones in a fleet under the command of a single operator. When they began work in 2016, one operator could monitor four drones simultaneously. By 2020, a single operator could monitor 20. And now? One operator monitoring the software can keep watch over a fleet of 24 drones.

And that’s an important factor, says Wolf, for any company looking to scale out its operations and have a broader impact.

“None of this would have been possible without autonomy,” he said. In fact, drones at Zipline’s hubs now have the capacity to deliver up to two tons of supplies in a given week, which is pretty incredible.

That’s pretty impressive..

Four pillars:

Zipline has four pillars that have helped define both its operations and its success. Zipline operations are:

  • Equitable
  • Reliable and safe
  • Sustainable
  • Quiet

“We’ve flown over 8,000,000 miles around the world. And we’ve never had a safety injury from a flight or serious damage from a flight,” says Wolf. He’s also proud, and justifiably so, of the low noise threshold and eco-friendly efficiency of this delivery system.

“We see our Zips consuming 25 times less energy per mile than even electric cars,” he said. “It’s not just the value brought by life-saving goods, but also the vehicles we’re taking off the road.”

And the future?

As Wolf pointed out, autonomy is the key. Build aircraft with redundant hardware and software features. Let the aircraft monitor its own health and flag issues when there’s a problem. You get the idea.

With a robust system like that in place, says Wolf, it’s not inconceivable for Zipline to move well beyond monitoring a fleet of 24 drones with a single operator: Well beyond.

As the slide points out, “The tools, processes, and roles we created to get to 1:24 have fully removed the human from any judgment calls on a per-flight basis. This is effectively no different than 1-to-infinity.

And when you look at what Zipline has been able to accomplish with hubs of 24 drones…well, imagine what could be achieved by scaling this 100-fold:

Automation is the future

Zipline’s Harrison Wolf made the case, and it’s one we would have already been on board with — Autonomous solutions, carrying out automated missions, make total sense. The more automation can be achieved, the less clutter and headaches for a human operator to handle.

Zipline has made huge strides in its five years on the ground in Africa. We can’t wait to see what the company does next.

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