In 2014, Economics and Biotechnology Harvard graduate Keller Rinaudo founded Zipline based out of San Francisco. Keller’s mission was to provide everyone on Earth, even in the most hard to reach places, with access to vital medical supplies, instantly with drone technology. Zipline developed a bi-wing drone that conserves energy by being launched from a custom catapult. The drone has a 12ft wingspan, an interchangeable battery pack, and a payload bay that can carry just under 4lbs. The average drone delivery time is 45 minutes, and the typical distribution center can complete up to 500 deliveries a day. Each flight is completely autonomous and BVLOS (Beyond Visual Line Of Sight).
Zipline began its medical drone deliveries in 2019 with the first distribution center in Ghana, soon opening 3 more centers serving more than 500 medical facilities in Ghana. Within a year, Zipline opened drone distribution centers in Rwanda, India, and the Philippines. As the world struggled to meet the medical needs of those in remote locations during the height of the COVID19 pandemic, Zipline opened a facility in Nigeria. The company was also granted a Part 107 waiver from the FAA to make autonomous BVLOS deliveries of medical supplies in North Carolina during the pandemic.
In September of 2020, Zipline announced that they were entering a partnership with Walmart to begin trial drone deliveries. Zipline said the trial would take place near Walmart’s headquarters in rural Arkansas in mid 2021. Customers would be able to go to the joint Zipline Walmart app to place an order and select a delivery time. Then someone from Walmart will pack the order in a specially designed parachuted box to be loaded into the drone’s cargo bay. Next, the drone battery is installed, and a safety inspection is done before launching the drone. The drone autonomously flies to the address put into the app. When it reaches the destination, the cargo bay doors open, and the package is released. As soon as the box drops from the drone, the parachute deploys, giving the package a smooth landing.
On November 18, 2021, just in time for the holiday shopping season, Zipline announced that Walmart drone deliveries would be available immediately to anyone living within a 50mile radius of the Walmart Neighborhood Market in Pea Ridge, Arkansas. Tom Ward, senior vice president of Walmart’s Last Mile Delivery operation, said that this drone program perfectly aligns with Walmart’s ethos. “Customers expect us to save them money,” he said, “they need us to save them time, and when it comes to saving time what better way to do it than via a drone.”
For Keller, branching out from medical deliveries was a natural transition for Zipline. “We’ve seen firsthand the impact that instant logistics can have in making important, even life saving products, available on a moment’s notice,” said Keller. “At the same time, the past two years have proven the need to bring health products closer to home, where they are more accessible. Working with Walmart, we’re able to bring this type of service to Northwest Arkansas, showcasing what the future of health access looks like.” For now, the drone delivery trial will be free to eligible customers while Zipline and Walmart collect data on the program. Based on the data collected, the companies plan to develop the program to spread to other locations across the country.