The drone’s engines are running, and I have 30 seconds to twist the red safety switch on top of the metal control panel, hold the blue button, and then press the green button to launch the drone. It was like playing a high-tech Bop It, and the payoff was sending a nearly seven-foot-long autonomous fix-winged aircraft zipping off its metal runway and into the sky.
I’m at drone delivery startup Zipline’s new test site in California’s Central Valley to check out the new vehicle it was unveiling: a white-bodied, red-winged, battery-powered glider with a 10-foot wingspan that’s designed to air drop packages of medical supplies midflight. The buttons are on a metal control box mounted to a clear plastic shield that stands between my face and the drone. “Don’t feel like you’re in a hurry,” says Jeff Farr, a flight operator at Zipline, who’s wearing a gray shirt with “Zipline” stamped across his chest. In fact, everyone working at the company’s bright-white launch center is wearing pretty much the same shirt, just in different colors.
With a sound like a massive zipper unzipping, the drone shoots along an inclined metal track.The carriage that propels the drone down the runway brakes at the end, slingshotting the aircraft forward and into the air. I hold the blue button down for a few seconds longer, letting the now-empty, almost coffin-like carriage retreat back to its starting point.
All I did was press a button, but I could feel the power of the launch system as the drone zipped along it. For Dan Czerwonka, who works on the company’s global operations team, the experience convinced him he’d found his place. When he first visited Zipline, “they let me launch one, and I was just hooked. I was like, ‘I have to work here,’” he says. “I was like, ‘They’re changing the world, saving lives.’ And I literally did everything I could to get in.”
Czerwonka’s enthusiasm makes me feel jaded because I’d gone into the day not expecting to be impressed. Health care is hard: it’s siloed, it’s expensive, and it has to contend with messy problems of human biology and behavior. Even the well-intentioned movement to make health records electronic fumbled, leading to badly designed interfaces that can, in rare cases, be dangerous. After all, this tech is responsible for people’s lives.
An earlier generation of these drones has been delivering donor blood for transfusions in Rwanda since October 2016. Zipline is also working on setting up a launch center in Tanzania, MIT Technology Review reports. But Zipline doesn’t operate in the US yet. The company is hoping that the Federal Aviation Administration will give them permission soon to start flying in a number of different locations, including Nevada and North Carolina.
Their newest test site in the US hadn’t been easy to find. Zipline’s home base is in Half Moon Bay, along the coast. Its new facility was inland, and after bumping along a single-lane dirt road for a couple of miles, I was lost. So I called Justin Hamilton, who does public relations for the company and was my only contact there. He told me I probably wasn’t lost, just before the call dropped. No service. The dirt road continued into a dusty parking lot, and I got out to find cell service or a landline. A bar of reception flickered to life on my cellphone, and I called Hamilton again. I really wasn’t lost, he told me. I should keep driving until I got to what looked like a moonbase.
So I kept driving. A white, domed structure with antennas towering above it and a mobile office building in front appeared. It really did look like a moonbase had been dropped onto the green countryside. Inside, the drones themselves were lined up in an undignified row, their tails in the air and their bellies exposed. The flaps that open to let parachuted packages of medical supplies fall to Earth were in full view.
With their wings removed and stacked on a rack, the drones’ styrofoam-clad bodies looked like the offspring of massive sportfish and disposable ice chests. The resemblance grew even more uncanny when the drones “landed” outside the moonbase by flying into what looked like an outsized trapeze, snagging their tails on a cable. Once hooked, the drones swung back and forth until finally coming to rest, dangling upside down until someone in a Zipline T-shirt retrieved them.
Farr says the company’s mission had attracted him. He’d been running an aerial photography business, he says, “and I had a good business going until I read a headline online that said: ‘Our drones save lives.’” He put a portfolio together, applied for a Zipline job, and has been with the company since 2016. “It’s something else to get a package that’s cold because there’s blood packed in it,” he says. “And knowing as that plane flies away it’s going to a hospital for a reason, and that’s to help save a life.”
The team uses blood packs to test-drive their delivery drones — but they’re filled with water, not the real stuff, I realize when Farr gives me a look inside the blood fridge. Czerwonka drives me and another journalist along rutted dirt road to the airdrop site where the drones practice releasing their parachuted packages. The field is covered in hoofprints and mounds of dried manure. A drone flies over, and, midflight, its belly opens up and a package somersaults out. Its parachute deploys, but the package still thuds when it hits the ground.
Back at the launch center, I sit down with Zipline CEO Keller Rinaudo next to a TV screen showing the spirals of the drones’ preprogrammed flight paths. We pause our conversation whenever another drone buzzes down the metal runway behind me.
Rinaudo talks about Zipline a little differently than his colleagues. Sure, he’s big on drones saving lives, too, but he also nerds out about reimagining the supply chain and disrupting medical logistics — phrases that would only be exciting to someone truly embedded in that field. He name-drops medical logistics companies I have never heard of, and repeats: “The stuff isn’t rocket science.” I tell him that it seems kind of close. “I guess it is kind of close,” he says, and searches for another metaphor: “It’s not like we’re trying to introduce a new drug in the States.”
At first, critics said what Zipline does wouldn’t be possible, Rinaudo tells me. His reaction was simple: “So then we build it and made it work,” he says. Then, the criticism changed: drone deliveries would never operate reliably. “So then we had a distribution center doing 100 flights in a day,” he says. But who would pay for it? “We signed a commercial contract with the government of Rwanda,” he says. The latest criticism is that drone deliveries of medical supplies aren’t relevant here in the US. Rinaudo has a sharp answer to that, too: “‘I say, ‘I’ll bet you live in a city.’”
It’s true: death rates are higher for people in rural areas, probably in part because they have less access to preventative care and trauma centers. “Everyone on the planet should have access to decent medical care, and we have the technology today to solve that problem,” Rinaudo says. “If you have instant delivery for hamburgers,” he says, “you should have instant delivery for medicines.”
But a drone — even a fleet of them — won’t fix the health care deserts of rural America. Sure, autonomous vehicles can deliver emergency medical supplies to a remote location. But most of the time, skilled health care workers will still need to be on hand to administer them. And those are few and far between in rural communities, where less than 10 percent of doctors in the US practice, according to Stanford Medicine’s rural health factsheet. Lack of transportation can also keep people from reaching health care, no matter how well-stocked those facilities are. Unless the drone has a saddle, that’s probably not a problem it can solve.
Still, at the end of my visit, I get into my car and bump back down the dirt road, wondering if they’d picked their new location as part of the show: a practical example of how drone delivery might really be a better strategy than deliveries by car, one day.
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