Founders: Keller Rinaudo Cliffton (CEO), Keenan Wyrobek
Headquarters: San Francisco
Key technologies: Artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles, machine learning, robotics
Previous appearances on Disruptor 50 List: 4 (No. 29 in 2022)
While tech heavyweights like Amazon are often ahead of the game when it comes to the leading edge of innovation, when it comes to logistics drones, it is Zipline that is on track to make one million autonomous deliveries by the end of this year.
Zipline, which currently operates in seven countries — including Rwanda, Ghana, the U.S., Nigeria, Japan, Kenya, and Côte D’Ivoire — got its start with a focus on critical medical deliveries in Rwanda, which first began in 2016 to help with the national blood delivery network and, according to a study published in Lancet, is an approach that can result in a reduction in blood waste of up to 67%.
Its work in Rwanda now includes medicine, medical supplies, nutrition, and animal health products in a new partnership with the nation’s government to complete nearly 2 million deliveries by 2029 under a new $61 million contract.
But with the release of its latest drone, Zipline is spreading its unmanned wings far beyond medicine. In March, Zipline released drone Platform 2, or P2 Zip, which can carry up to eight pounds within a ten-mile radius, finish flights in about ten minutes, and land a package on a space as small as a table or doorstep.
“The reason that number is important is that when you look at e-commerce in the U.S., a vast majority of packages weigh five pounds or less,” said Zipline CEO and co-founder Keller Rinaudo Cliffton in a recent conversation with CNBC about the new drones.
The push into retail and across the U.S. didn’t come out of nowhere. As far back as 2020, the company was part of drone tests with Walmart in Arkansas. Early this year, Walmart announced that with partners including Zipline, DroneUp and Flytrex, it had grown to 36 drone delivery hubs across Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, North Carolina, Texas, Utah and Virginia, and has made 6,000 flights.
Zipline also has relationships with medical providers in the country, and in recent years has conducted long-range medical drone flights in challenging geographies including the Appalachian regions of North Carolina. In 2022, Zipline became the first company to receive FAA Part 135 approval for long-range drone delivery in the U.S., a huge step towards greater domestic expansion. Its North Carolina distribution center covers a 7,800-square-mile area. It also designs, tests, and manufactures Zips in California.
The retail opportunity has become a huge driver for a niche drone player that some experts once contended was limited to a specialty medical market. From lunch deliveries with Sweetgreen to health prescriptions from Walmart, Zipline can maneuver peak order times by creating its Zips in a way that automatically redistributes the drones from dock to dock for loading and launching.
Zipline has already completed 540,000 deliveries to customers, which is more than what Alphabet and Amazon have delivered combined.
—CNBC’s Lora Kolodny and Katie Brigham contributed reporting.
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