Drone maker Zipline, on track for 1 million deliveries, adds vitamins, pizzas and prescriptions to cargo

Drone technology company Zipline, which rose to prominence flying critical medical supplies like blood bags and vaccines over rugged terrain in Rwanda, has seen the commercial side of its business boom. Deals with Walmart, and a new drone design, are making Zipline a bigger player in the world of retail and home delivery, and not only in hard-to-reach places.

On Wednesday, the company announced new delivery deals in the U.S., with nutritional supplement and wellness retail company GNC for Salt Lake City, and Seattle-area pizza chain Pagliacci Pizza for the greater Seattle metro area. Pagliacci and Zipline have created a new custom-designed pizza box to fit two 13″ pizzas and side dishes in Zipline drones. A third new deal is closer to its drone roots: with New York-based health-care logistics company Associated Couriers, it will offer patients at long-term care facilities across Long Island, New York, delivery of specialty prescriptions and medications.  

A rendering of P2 Zips charging at a docking station.

The deals are part of Zipline’s recent expansion into home delivery, which features its new drone platform, known as its P2 Zip, for what it says is nearly silent delivery, able to travel up to 24 miles each way from dock to dock to local communities, and can reach 99% of addresses in both urban and suburban areas at much faster speeds of traditional ground-based delivery.

Far from its first test cases in mountainous, rural setting regions, Zipline is set on dispelling the myth that the drones can’t work in high-density urban areas.

“When you mention urban, people always think of New York City and Chicago, but the reality is most of the cities in the United States don’t look like Manhattan or Chicago. They look more like Phoenix, Denver, LA, Houston, or Dallas. In those places, this technology can have a huge impact in terms of delivering ten times as fast, for half the cost, and at zero emission,” said Zipline CEO Keller Rinaudo Cliffton on CNBC’s “Power Lunch” on Wednesday, after Zipline was ranked No. 25 on the 2023 CNBC Disruptor 50 list.

Zipline has made the CNBC Disruptor list four times.

Rinaudo Cliffton said that Zipline has already delivered in urban cities across the U.S. where people don’t expect this technology to start. Its first two distribution centers are in Charlotte, North Carolina and Bentonville, Arkansas, home of Walmart.

Zipline drone flights first began in 2016 to help with the national blood delivery network in Rwanda, and according to a study published in Lancet, it is an approach that can result in a reduction in blood waste of up to 67%. 

Rinaudo Cliffton sees similar inefficiencies and waste, especially with carbon emissions, in the way deliveries are made today. Citing the four billion instant deliveries predicted to be made in the U.S. alone this year, he says the future will require more drone deliveries.  

“We actually think it’s inevitable that this is going to shift towards systems that are quiet, less obtrusive, and actually good for the environment,” he said.

He added that there is a huge disconnect between the logistics network approach used for most deliveries and the size and weight of most packages in e-commerce, at under five pounds.

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.

Last week, Zipline completed its 600,000th delivery and in just two years aims to operate more drone flights every year than most major U.S. airlines.