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Q&A with Zipline: Revolutionising Global Logistics

By Henry Duah

This week, we delve into the transformative work of Zipline, a pioneering company at the forefront of revolutionising global logistics. Founded in 2014 in the United States and establishing operations in Rwanda in 2016, Zipline specialises in instant delivery and logistics through autonomous drones. Their innovative technology swiftly transports essential medical supplies, vaccines, and other essential goods to remote and hard-to-reach areas, significantly improving access to healthcare and supporting public health initiatives. Zipline is currently operating in eight countries, with five in Africa.

Rwanda is the first African country in which Zipline started operating. Zipline’s operation in Rwanda started mainly in the health sector but is currently extended to farming and tourism, with more plans underway to explore other sectors, such as tourism, retail and food deliveries. The impact of Zipline’s operation has been a massive improvement in the sectors they focus on and the people across the five countries in Africa. As they expand their reach across multiple continents, Zipline continues to innovate and collaborate, addressing logistical challenges and positively impacting communities worldwide.

Join us as we explore Zipline’s groundbreaking work in Rwanda, learning more about their innovative solutions, societal impact, and future outlook in Rwanda and beyond with their Flight Operations Lead, Nehemie Nzayisingiza.

How has the journey for Zipline in Rwanda been since 2016?

When Zipline started operations in Rwanda in 2016, it was a bit scrappy. We had just one distribution centre serving a single health facility, and the government was taking a chance on our technology to see if it would work. With our first generation of aircraft, we faced flight failures and crashes into trees and fields, but we kept improving the hardware and technology.

As we demonstrated our system’s potential, the government trusted us to scale and serve more facilities around that initial distribution centre. In 2017, our second-generation aircraft drastically reduced failures, allowing us to reach facilities up to 80 kilometres away and truly bridge supply chain gaps.

Then, in 2019, we opened our second distribution centre in eastern Rwanda, enabling nationwide coverage except for Kigali, from conducting just 200 flights that first year, we’ve done over 100,000 flights in 2023 alone, serving over 500 facilities nationwide.

But our growth continued. Initially just delivering blood products, we expanded into medical supplies in 2018, livestock products like animal vaccines in 2021, and even the tourism sector – delivering Rwandan goods to high-end resorts.

It’s been an incredible journey, going from that single distribution centre to a nationwide integrated logistics provider across multiple sectors. Through continuous innovation and the government’s trust, we’ve transformed how supplies reach the last mile in Rwanda.

Beyond the drones themselves, can you elaborate on the complex network of supporting technologies and systems involved in Zipline’s instant logistics operations, such as airspace deconfliction tools and fulfilment software?

Our in-house engineers have been instrumental in developing the flight software that powers our drone operations. Year after year, we’ve continually progressed and made significant improvements. Our landing technology has come a long way – we started with basic fish nets, then moved to inflatable landing mats where the drones would land. Now, our tall landing structures allow the drones to swing in for a smoother landing.

In terms of airspace management, we used to have only ten drones, or ‘zips’ as we call them internally, operating simultaneously from one distribution centre. But now, our enhanced software can accommodate up to 34 zips in the air simultaneously from a single distribution centre, with nearly 64 drones flying concurrently across both centres.

Deconfliction and communication between zips have also improved vastly. We’ve advanced our radio communication systems and implemented satellite linkups to ensure the drones remain safe during flight.

Overall, the software powering our operations and the infrastructure supporting our drone fleet has undergone impressive upgrades over the years, enabling us to scale our capabilities drastically.

How does Zipline’s airspace deconfliction tool work to ensure safe and efficient drone operations, especially in mountainous areas such as Rwanda?

We have a dedicated team of GIS engineers responsible for meticulously designing the routes our autonomous ‘zips’ or drones follow during deliveries. Before any zip can fly autonomously, it must have a pre-determined path.

In designing these routes, our engineers consider various factors like terrain topology, the presence of power lines, tall structures, and any other potential obstacles in the airspace. This is crucial because drone operations are limited to 400 feet above ground level. If the terrain is hilly or mountainous, the routes must be designed to accommodate climbing up and down through the elevation changes. Every health facility we serve has an independent, customised route created specifically for that location.

These route designs then undergo an approval process with the Rwanda Civil Aviation Authority to ensure they meet regulations and safety standards. Our specialised teams undertake this comprehensive process to enable safe and efficient autonomous drone operations across Rwanda’s diverse landscapes.

Zipline operates on four continents and in eight countries. How do you adapt your logistics and delivery system to the specific needs and challenges of each country, and what factors contribute to the success of Zipline, especially in regions with limited infrastructure?

One of the major infrastructure hurdles Zipline encounters when expanding to new countries is ensuring stable internet connectivity and a reliable electricity supply, which are critical for our operations. Fortunately, the internet connection and electricity grid in Rwanda are relatively stable compared to other countries we aim to serve. Zipline has explored utilising Starlink satellite internet services in areas with poor internet access. Our strategy involves engaging with the major internet service providers (ISPs) in the countries we operate in. A consistent electricity supply is vital, as Zipline requires power to charge drone batteries, run warehouses with cold storage facilities, and support other operational needs. Our infrastructure is designed with redundancies – if the primary grid power is unstable, we have backup generators and a third level of UPS battery backups in case both grid and generators fail. We implemented solar panels for a distribution centre in Kaduna, Nigeria, which runs solely on solar energy.

In summary, the two biggest infrastructure obstacles in Africa are securing stable internet and electricity sources.

How does Zipline engage with local communities in the areas it serves, and what efforts are made to ensure that the technology benefits the communities meaningfully?

One of the most crucial things we must do when operating in any community is to ensure that the Zipline is accepted and that the people understand the importance of our services for their area. When we first started, not just in Rwanda but everywhere, there was a lot of misconception and maybe even suspicion around drones. People thought we might be spying on them or had other misunderstandings.

So, we have a dedicated community engagement team whose job is to go out, meet with local governments and citizens, invite them to our distribution centres, and explain who we are, what we do, and why our services are vital for that community’s health and well-being. We attend meetings, give presentations, and make sure people truly grasp the positive impact Zipline can have.

But it goes beyond just education. We also give back and become an active part of the communities we serve. We hire local talent to work at our facilities, so the community directly benefits from jobs. We participate in government programs like Rwanda’s national health insurance initiative by sponsoring insurance premiums for some rural citizens and genocide survivors.

Looking ahead, what are some upcoming milestones or innovations that Zipline is excited about in advancing its mission of creating an inclusive and efficient logistics system in Africa?

Our current generation aircraft, Platform One, is optimised for delivering packages to remote areas. It’s designed to safely drop packages from the sky, making it suitable for locations where traditional delivery methods may not reach. However, a new generation aircraft, Platform Two, is being developed for densely populated cities like San Francisco. This aircraft will be able to deliver a broader range of goods, including medical supplies, food, and even coffee. Testing for Platform Two is planned for early 2025, starting in Rwanda before expanding to other African countries and markets needing this advanced delivery technology. We are working on expanding our operations to different countries and improving our technology.

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