Feb 6, 2021 - Economy

Zipline prepares to airlift COVID-19 vaccines

A Zipline drone makes a delivery in Rwanada in 2017.

A Zipline drone makes a delivery in Rwanada in 2017. Photo: Cyril Ndegeya/AFP via Getty Images

The drone startup Zipline announced this week that it is planning to deliver COVID-19 vaccines wherever it operates — including in the U.S.

Why it matters: Aerial drones could be a useful solution to the challenge of getting vaccines to people in sparsely populated rural areas, while laying the groundwork for a new era of drone delivery.

Driving the news: On Wednesday Nigeria's Kaduna state signed a deal with Zipline to allow drone delivery of COVID-19 vaccines.

  • That agreement was followed by Zipline's announcement on Thursday that it was building a delivery solution that would allow the company to safely deliver all leading COVID-19 vaccines in all of the countries in which it operates.
  • That plan includes working with what the company says is a major vaccine manufacturer to build end-to-end cold chain distribution, which is necessary for vaccines like those from Pfizer.

By the numbers: Zipline, which launched in 2014 as a way to micro-deliver medical supplies in countries like Ghana that lacked an effective road distribution network, has already delivered more than 1 million doses of other vaccines in Africa over the past year.

  • Though its focus has been in Africa, Zipline signed a deal last May to distribute COVID-19 medical supplies in the United States. CEO Keller Rinaudo told CNBC that "more than 100 million people in America — in both rural and urban areas — live in pharmacy deserts" and could benefit from drone delivery.

What they're saying: "We're really not a Silicon Valley tech company anymore," says Matt Fay, data team lead at Zipline. "We're really a logistics company that is operating in Ghana, in Rwanda, in the United States."

  • To that end, Fay notes, each Zipline flight collects hundreds of megabytes of data to make distribution "as efficient as possible and as reliable as possible. We treat it as one machine that can take in orders and integrate into the local health care system."

The bottom line: Drone delivery is likely to be one more trend that the pandemic accelerates.

Go deeper