Humanitarian Cargo Delivery via Aerial Robotics is Not Science Fiction (Updated)

I had the opportunity to visit Zipline’s field-testing site in San Francisco last year after the company participated in an Experts Meeting on Humanitarian UAVs (Aerial Robotics) that I co-organized at MIT. The company has finally just gone public about their good work in Rwanda, so I’m at last able to blog about it on iRevolutions. When I write “finally”, this is not meant to be a complaint; in fact, one aspect that really drew me to Zipline in the first place is the team’s genuine down-to-earth, no-hype mantra. So, I use the word finally since I now finally have public evidence to backup many conversations I’ve had with humanitarian partners on the topic of cargo delivery via aerial robotics.

Zip Delivery

As I had signed an NDA, I was (and still am) only allowed to discuss information that is public, which was basically nothing until today. So below is a summary of what is at last publicly known about Zipline’s pioneering aerial robotics efforts in Rwanda. I’ve also added videos at the end.


  • Zipline’s Mission: to deliver critical medical products to health centers and hospitals that are either difficult or impossible to reach via traditional modes of transportation
  • Zipline Fleet: 15 aerial robotics platforms (UAVs) in Rwanda.
  • Aerial Robotics platform: Fixed-wing.
  • Weight of each platform: 10-kg.
  • Power: Battery-operated twin-electric motors.
  • Payload capacity: up to 1.5kg.
  • Cargo: Blood and essential medicines (small vials) to begin with. Eventually cargo will extend to lifesaving vaccines, treatments for HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis, etc.
  • Range: Up to 120 km.
  • Flight Plans: Pre-programmed and monitored on the ground via tablets. Individual plans are stored on SIM cards.









  • Flight Navigation: GPS using the country’s cellular network.
  • Launch Mechanism: Via catapult.
  • Maximum Speed: Around 100 km/hour.
  • Landings: Zipline’s aerial robot does not require a runway.
  • Delivery Mechanism: Fully autonomous, low altitude drop via simple paper parachute. Onboard computers determine appropriate parameters (taking into account winds, etc) to ensure that the cargo accurately lands on it’s dedicated delivery site called a “mailbox”.
  • Delivery Sites: Dedicated drop sites at 21 health facilities that can carry out blood transfusions. These cover more than half of Rwanda.

Screen Shot 2016-04-05 at 4.22.02 PM










  • Takeoff Sites: Modified shipping containers located next to existing medical warehouses.
  • Delivery Time: Each cargo is delivered within 1 hour. The aerial robot takes about 1/2 hour reach a delivery site.
  • Flight Frequency: Eventually up to 150 flights per day.
  • Weather: Fixed-wings can operate in ~50km/hour winds.
  • Regulatory Approval: Direct agreements already secured with the Government of Rwanda and country’s Civil Aviation Authority.


13 responses to “Humanitarian Cargo Delivery via Aerial Robotics is Not Science Fiction (Updated)

  1. Are they using the Bee product? The flight speeds seem pretty impressive. Apparently the cell signal is strong and constant enough that satellite God is not needed? Thinking of other countries in westvafrica where the cell coverage is spotty.

  2. Congrats to Zipline, you guys are the Tesla of UAVs!

  3. Patrick, I’d love to reach out to Zipline and see if we could assist them in their efforts to share their story in an authentic way. Do you have contact info you are able to share? Thanks!

  4. Patrick, no need — I tracked them down. Thanks!

  5. Pingback: Three most interesting articles of the day (April 5) | BAIL: Bay Area International Link

  6. Matthew Elyash

    The numbers for speed are all wrong, you can not fly this size bird at 290KPH and get that range with that payload. Somebody who should know better should have reviewed the article, now it calls into question all the other no doubt valid and true claims

    • Hi Matthew, I connected with Zipline’s CEO earlier, their platforms fly around 100 km/hour. They’ll ask The Atlantic to make the correction. I have updated my blog post accordingly. Thanks for reading and for your comment.

    • Yes, seemed a little obvious. Also I was confused about the “time aloft” number versus the stated range… They seemed not to jive.

  7. Pingback: On Humanitarian Innovation versus Robotic Natives | iRevolutions

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s