Zipline has long been the model for drone delivery services. And it’s been setting the example in Africa, first in Rwanda, and then in Ghana. Zipline set another milestone on April 17, with the first drone delivery of COVID-19 medical test samples.

The operations took place in the West African nation of Ghana. Four Zipline flights delivered 51 completed COVID-19 tests from rural locations to the Noguchi Memorial Institute for Medical Research in the capital city of Accra for processing. This delivery took less than an hour, versus up to several days if the samples had arrived by truck.

On the 18th, Zipline delivered more COVID-19 test samples from rural areas to Kumasi, the country’s second-largest city. The company says that this is the first time autonomous drones have flown deliveries into dense urban centers. Zipline is now providing such deliveries on a daily basis.

A different kind of drone

Zipline’s vehicles may not be what you picture when you hear the word “drone.” They are small airplanes, instead of copters. Flying by wing vs. rotor is much more energy-efficient, allowing Zipline’s drones to travel much farther than copter-style drones. The COVID-19 sample deliveries to Accra, for instance, were seventy miles round trip. Lacking the ability to hover, Zipline typically drops its cargo by parachute, with very good accuracy.

zipline parachute delivery

The company began service in Rwanda in 2016, delivering blood and other medical supplies to rural clinics. In 2019, it expanded to Ghana to provide similar services. All told, Zipline has flown more than 35,000 of these missions in the two countries. In September, Zipline announced plans to expand into India.

But the US-based company is yet to operate on its home turf. That may be changing, soon, however. Zipline was already working with the FAA to get certified to provide medical delivery service in the US in the fall. This process began before the coronavirus crisis.

Since then, the company says it’s been working with the FAA on expedited approval to begin “emergency humanitarian operations.” This would focus on the delivery of COVID-19 supplies such as test kits and personal protective equipment. A launch date has yet to be announced, but the company says it could begin operation “within weeks of receiving the go-ahead.”

Images: courtesy Zipline


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