Zipline: drones that can save lives and revolutionize supply chains

Zipline designs, manufactures, and uses its drones to transform medicine delivery to the last mile. Its digitized supply chain is saving time and money while improving healthcare in Rwanda.

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In October 2016, for-profit, California-based startup Zipline International, Inc. introduced the world’s first commercial drone delivery service in partnership with the Government of Rwanda.[1] Starting with routine and emergency deliveries of blood, Zipline revolutionized delivery of medical supplies to the last mile while adding value to multiple layers of Rwanda’s health supply chain.

The speediness of drones versus the status quo of road transport improved patient care, with ancillary benefits of better product availability, labor utilization, and product mix. Before Zipline, hospitals carried a small stock of common blood. If out of stock, doctors could refer patients to larger hospitals or laboratory technicians would drive ~4-8 hours roundtrip to request blood from one of Rwanda’s five Regional Centers for Blood Transfusion (RCBTs), which can also suffer from stock-outs.[2],[3] Only 25% of Rwandan roads are paved and they tend to have poor drainage during rain.[4],[5] Now Zipline delivers blood via drones in ~15-40 minutes, even during inclement weather.[6] Laboratory technicians no longer travel to get blood and doctors and nurses can treat patients faster, increasing labor utilization. Zipline’s drones fly fast enough to carry a broader range of blood products with time- and temperature-sensitive transport and storage requirements to the last mile, thus supporting treatment decentralization.[7]

Because Zipline stores inventory centrally at its site, customers can order on-demand, which reduces inventory holding and transport costs for individual hospitals and the government overall. Nearly one third of the world, largely concentrated in Sub-Saharan Africa, lacks access to essential medicine due to a combination of stock-outs, wastage, and transport difficulties.[8] These symptoms stem from the difficulty of demand forecasting, which is exacerbated in resource-limited settings due to lack of reliable data, poor connectivity, and, where they exist, nascent IT systems.[9] The more products Zipline carries, the more responsive it associated supply chains can be to individual, real-time patient needs.

Zipline’s new digitized supply chain system also has positive externalities for Rwanda’s public health system. Prior to Zipline, hospitals placed orders, tracked usage, and recorded blood transfusion outcomes using paper forms. When considering orders, staff had to instinctively rationalize distribution of blood based on recollection of factors like current supply and historical hospital usage/wastage patterns.[10] Though expected to enter summaries of these numbers online every month, staff were often limited by unreliable access to computers and internet.[11]

With Zipline, laboratory technicians can place orders using a Google form, WhatsApp, SMS, or toll-free phone call. Instead of making individual order approval decisions, Zipline worked with Rwanda’s Ministry of Health to define pre-approved order size bounds for each hospital, thus largely standardizing order quantity.[12] Additionally, Zipline developed its own electronic database accessible to the government to track SKU-level blood demand, supply, and usage real-time, therefore circumventing dependence on hospitals’ existing connectivity levels.[13] Zipline’s on-demand service model and real-time supply chain tracking software enables an unprecedented level of visibility and need-based blood distribution previously impossible in Rwanda.

Looking forward, Zipline’s management must focus on sustainable scaling. Zipline should mandate that it directly house and share supply chain data with customers. Without this, customers may request custom integration with their legacy IT systems, which tend to be unique by product type and country and are prone to interoperability, connectivity, and security issues. Furthermore, Zipline should require that this database be the sole digital source of truth for billing audits to avoid lengthy data reconciliation processes and delayed payments. Zipline should also push towards offering 24/7 service to eliminate the need for costly parallel distribution systems. To preempt regulatory barriers, Zipline could build political will with aviation and health authorities in target countries before contract finalization. Finally, Zipline should create clear rubrics outlining order prioritization criteria once it begins delivering more products for both public and private sector clients given required use of a shared and limited airspace.

All things considered, developing countries operate with limited budgets. Is embracing Zipline’s high-tech service worth the tradeoff of not investing in traditional road infrastructure, which can boost additional industries like agriculture and trade?

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[1] Overly, S. “In Rwanda, lifesaving blood now drops from drones,” The Washington Post (October 13, 2016).

[2] Hu, N. Personal Interview (November 14, 2017).

[3] Rwanda Biomedical Center, “National Center for Blood Transfusion,”

[4] Foth, J. “We haven’t considered the true cost drone delivery medical services in Africa” Quartz (September 29, 2017).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Hu, N. Personal Interview (November 14, 2017).

[7] Rosen, J., “Zipline’s Ambitious Medical Drone Delivery in Africa,” MIT Technology Review (June 8, 2017).

[8] Nditunze, L, Makuza, S. et al, “Assessment of Essential Medicines Stock-Outs at Health Centers in Burera District in Northern Rwanda” Rwanda Journal Series F: Medicine and Health Sciences. Vol 2 No. 1 (2015)

[9] Soyiri, I. and Reidpath, P. “An Overview of Health Forecasting,” Environmental Health and Preventative Medicine 2013 Jan; 18(1): 1-9.

[10] Hu, N. Personal Interview (November 14, 2017).

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.


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Student comments on Zipline: drones that can save lives and revolutionize supply chains

  1. This is a fantastic article! Clearly and knowledgeably written on a fascinating subject. I have a few questions/comments.

    1. In answer to your final question on whether the tradeoff is worthwhile, I believe that investing in a $900,000 drone network (the cost, according to Matternet: is not mutually exclusive with spending tens of millions of dollars on road infrastructure. Much like a banking sector is likely to develop after the growth of M-Pesa and mobile wallets in Sub-Saharan Africa, Zipline’s technology does not preclude future roads being built. In fact, the economic development facilitated by services like Zipline is likely to stimulate the installation of traditional infrastructure. “Leapfrogging” technology, in other words, is a misnomer.

    2. Why limit this model to hospital services? Might Zipline open this service to other direct-to-consumer (or direct-to-community) products, such as pill vaccines, water purifiers or even light mail? Are there potential use-cases around natural disaster zones?

    3. How reliant is this service on the “partnership” with government? Many of Zipline’s most attractive growth markets are operating outside of stable political systems. Rwanda is something of an exception within Sub-Saharan Africa, in that its government is progressive and technology-forward. Would the “government partnership” model work in a context of a less innovative government? Does the model even require official government support?

    Thanks for an excellent and thought-provoking read.

  2. Really interesting topic. When I think about the growth opportunities in emerging markets, many of them involve leveraging new technologies to leapfrog the costs associated with antiquated or expensive traditional infrastructure (e.g., communication: cell phone use vs. landline, energy: renewable microgeneration vs. electrical grid). The topic you’ve discussed here tackles another important opportunity – transportation of goods or more specifically, last mile delivery.

    The last mile often comprises a significant share of the overall parcel delivery cost and can be upwards of 50%+ according to a recent Mckinsey report [1]. As you noted, the inherent difficulties of fulfilling last mile delivery in a traditional manner (with trucks/etc.) become exponentially more difficult in underdeveloped markets where infrastructure (roads, storage facilities, etc.) are often ill equipped to satisfy the demand. It appears that necessity (and/or the lack of other options) is the key driver for the adoption of what Zipline has to offer in developing markets and in a way offers us a test case for how drones can revolutionize the transport of goods. I wonder if, in addition to the visibility that drones provide in the delivery process, there are other services that could be valuable here (e.g., drone serving as communication portal b/w customer and key constituents). These are really exciting times.

    [1] Parcel delivery The future of last mile – McKinsey

  3. This is great work on a subject that can truly change lives. Thank you for that. After reading the article, I cannot help but to wholeheartedly agree with Sasha’s comment regarding your final question. While Zipline represents an elegant solution to last mile delivery in the healthcare space, I do not think that it should become the main answer to the problem. Traditional infrastructure can and should complement it. I believe that in an ideal long run scenario, the use of Zipline should be limited to emergency type situations, with the assumption that traditional road infrastructure can achieve scale in a way that is impractical for drone deliveries.

    Traditional infrastructure also come with tremendous positive externalities, and a powerful ability to connect areas that now seem remote. With traditional infrastructure, comes better access to food, education, and other basic needs that could further contribute to the well-being of populations in seemingly remote areas.

    One final thought is that while I maintain that investments in traditional infrastructure are not mutually exclusive, they may actually end up reducing the need to rely on technologies like drone deliveries. Regardless, I would be curious to observe how the situation evolves over time.

    Great work!

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