Zipline adds Rappelling Droid to delivery drones

This morning, drone delivery company Zipline announced a new drone delivery system that offers near-silent, precision delivery that aims to expand the company’s capabilities into home delivery. This requires a very different approach than what Zipline has been doing for the past eight years. To make home deliveries quiet and accurate, Zipline has developed a creative new combination of hybrid drones, ‘droids’ and all the ancillary equipment needed to make deliveries right to your front porch.

We visited one of Zipline’s distribution centers in Rwanda a few years ago to see how effective their system was at delivering blood across the country’s rugged terrain. We drove an hour along winding dirt roads to a rural hospital to watch the birth. Shortly after our arrival, the drone made a trip and delivered a package of blood in about 14 minutes. It was a compelling example of the value of drone delivery in situations where you have critical and time-sensitive products in low-infrastructure areas, but the challenges of urban home delivery are something else entirely.

The way the current generation of Zipline fixed-wing delivery drones work is that the boxes are attached to small parachutes while flying several tens of meters over an open delivery area. You need an obstacle-free space (say, a couple of empty parking spaces or equivalent) to work reliably, and it’s not a particularly lean process, which means there are some limitations to what you can deliver and how it’s packaged. For hospitals and health centers, this is usually not a problem. This may not be an option at all for your home.

Zipline’s new drones are very different. In a heavily produced online event with Rwandan President Paul Kagame and company board member Bono, the Zipline team unveiled the P2, a new delivery system that combines a hybrid fixed-wing drone with a tiny tethered droid that can pop out of the belly. the drone to make precise deliveries.

Housed inside the P2 Zip, the droid and everything it carries can travel at speeds of 112 kilometers per hour through all kinds of weather to a service radius of about 16 km with an impressive 2.5 to 3.5 kilograms of payload. When the P2 reaches its delivery destination, the Zip hovers several hundred feet while an integrated winch lowers the droid and package to the ground. The Zip stays safely and quietly aloft, while the droid uses integrated thrusters to precisely position itself over the delivery zone, which at just half a meter could easily be the top of a picnic table. Visual sensors on the droid ensure the delivery zone is clear. As soon as it touches, the droid ejects its cargo from its belly. It is then put back into the Zip and the team returns home.

At the other end of things, there’s an integrated loading system where P2 Zips can be charged outside (using an interesting top-loading system) while the droids drop one by one down a tube that loads inside.

While the event didn’t show the full delivery cycle, we were told that all of the equipment is operational and very close to production design, and that all delivery steps have been successfully completed with actual aircraft. Of course, there’s still plenty of testing to be done, and Zipline expects to complete 10,000 flights by the summer, followed by its first deployment. Initial customers include several regional health systems in the United States, Sweetgreen restaurants and the government of Rwanda, with President Kagame himself as the first customer. And to be clear, P2 does not replace Zipline’s original drone infrastructure; with their 100km range, the original Zips (now called P1) are still quite busy delivering essential goods in Rwanda and elsewhere around the world.

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