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24th of October 2018


How Zipline Helps Remote Regions Get Blood From a Drone


Anne Wojcicki, cofounder and CEO of 23andMe


Keller Rinaudo, cofounder and CEO of Zipline

Keller Rinaudo began his career as the cocreator of Romo, a tiny toy robot. But for the past five years his work has been, well, bloodier. His company, Zipline, uses autonomous planes to deliver medical supplies—vaccines, pharmaceuticals, and blood—to hard-to-reach places. It signed its first client, the government of Rwanda, in 2016, and says it now fulfills about a fifth of the blood needs of the country’s rural population.

Anne Wojcicki, cofounder and CEO of 23andMe, says she was drawn to Rinaudo’s “passion, dedication, and laser focus on what he wanted to accomplish.” Now his focus is on expansion. Zipline has plans to open a distribution center in Tanzania and has introduced a new drone called the Zip 2 to improve its existing service and handle all those extra deliveries.

Chris Philpot

1. Dual PropsThe Zip 1 had a continuously rotating propeller on each wing. The new drone has two on its center line; if one prop gets gunked up with dust, the second one can still fly it home.

2. Tiny TailhookZipline doesn’t so much land its drones as snatch them from the sky and string them up like pheasants. The Zip 1 deployed a tailhook to grab a cable in midair. The Zip 2’s hook is smaller, and the cable snaps up to meet it.

3. Soft LandingHospital staff receive a text message shortly before their Zip is due to arrive, and the package wafts safely down, landing within the area of a couple of parking spaces.

4. Quick ChargerThe Zip 1 battery was fiddly; ground crews often had to wrestle with wires. The new one slots tidily into place. Along with faster software updates and other improvements, it will help boost the maximum number of daily flights tenfold.

5. Precision PilotingZips juggle GPS signals from space and drone-to-drone radio transmissions. Flight plans are stored in onboard SIM cards.

6. Softer SkinThe original drone had a rigid carbon-­composite skin. The new one has a carbon-fiber frame and styrofoam shell. Like a bike helmet, it protects the (electronic) brains better in the event of a crash.

7. Wider WingspanZip drones are fixed-wing aircraft, which gives them greater speed and range than a rotor drone. The Zip 2’s wingspan stretches to 10 feet, letting it fly faster and farther and carry more cargo than its predecessor.

8. Catch and ReleaseAn electric catapult accelerates the Zip 2 from 0 to 70 mph in a quarter of a second. Zipline proto­typed its new drone-snatching system using two pole-vault poles, a ladder, and a broomstick.

This article appears in the October issue. Subscribe now.

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