Drone delivery company Zipline unveiled a major new aircraft on Wednesday, a model that can hover as it lowers packages on a tether. The approach is designed to reach vastly more customers than its first-generation system.
The South San Francisco-based company has quietly become a major player in the nascent but potentially important drone delivery market. With its first-generation aircraft, which look like small airplanes, it’s completed more than 500,000 deliveries since 2016. Most of those deliveries have been in Rwanda and Ghana, but the company also has operations in Utah, Arkansas and North Carolina, too.
And the new drone, called Platform 2, should help expand US operations to be more practical and economical in urban and suburban areas. Zipline’s Platform 1 has an efficient fixed-wing design but can’t stop flying as it parachutes a package into to an area about the size of two parking spaces. Platform 2 pairs a fixed wing for forward flight with upward pointing propellers for hovering while it lowers a compact “droid” down 330 feet to plop packages on driveways, sidewalks or other clear areas.
Seeing a package of medicine or cup of coffee drop out of the sky may seem like sci-fi, but drone delivery will reach millions of people this year as tests expand and operations mature. Drones can get items to our homes faster than delivery vans, with lower carbon dioxide emissions — just the thing for an instant gratification culture fostered by e-commerce giant Amazon.
“We’re adding technology to our system that prepares us to reach billions of more people around the world,” Okeoma Moronu, Zipline’s leader of aviation regulatory affairs, said in a statement. “Our next generation platform will enable us to operate with the precision needed to fly safely into more complex environments and over more highly populated areas.”
Customers planning to use the new drones include Sweetgreen to deliver food; Michigan Medicine to fill more prescriptions from its pharmacy; Intermountain Health to deliver prescriptions in Utah’s Salt Lake City area; MultiCare Health System to shuttle prescriptions and medical devices around its network of labs and medical facilities; and the Rwandan government for deliveries to homes, hotels and medical facilities in its capital, Kigali.
Tethers have been used before, for example on drones from Wing, the drone delivery division from Google parent company Alphabet. But Zipline’s droid has three propellers of its own to permit a smaller delivery area only about 6 feet wide, even in rain, darkness and strong winds. That opens up drone deliveries to many more houses and buildings.
And with a longer tether than rivals use, the drone is only about as loud as rustling leaves, Zipline said.
Noise is a crucial issue. Some Arizonans have complained about loud drones in a Walmart drone delivery project. But it’s only one challenge, along with safety, privacy, cost and regulatory approvals.
“Zips” test drones on the way
Zipline is building a fleet of 100 Platform 2 aircraft, also called Zips, and droids so it can begin a 10,000-flight test program later this year. It expects the first customer deliveries by early 2024.
It’s also working toward Federal Aviation Administration approval for flights that take place beyond an operator’s visual line of sight — BVLOS, in aviation jargon. That’s a key step for expanding beyond pilot tests.
Zipline’s second-generation drones can carry a payload of 6 to 8 pounds that’s about the size of a grocery bag with its top rolled up. That’s good for medical products — Zipline’s first delivery use — as well as restaurant meals, packaged goods, groceries and other smaller items.
The drone can fly up to 10 miles from a delivery hub, but longer flights can reach 24 miles, Zipline said. That longer reach comes into play with a planned expansion from Zipline’s current hub-and-spoke operations to a network with multiple hubs and docking stations. That’s the more sophisticated operational style Wing just announced, too.
“Zipline’s next-generation platform works as a point-to-point network consisting of many docks spread out across a variety of locations like restaurants, stores and warehouses,” Zipline engineering chief Jo Mardall said. When the drones reach a dock at a business, they recharge and lower the droid for loading.
“Zips are automatically routed to a dock that makes the most sense, whether that’s to go recharge or to pick up another order. Zipline’s software automatically ensures the network is equally distributed and that Zips go where they’re needed most.”