If someone living in a rural area near the small town of Pea Ridge, Arkansas, feels sick and needs a new thermometer or some Advil, they can now place an order to be delivered to their home by drone instead of getting in a car and driving to a store. Zipline, the drone delivery startup that first launched with emergency medical deliveries in Rwanda, is partnering with Walmart to make drone deliveries around Pea Ridge, near Walmart’s headquarters.
The vision is that eventually the service could be combined with telemedicine and make prescription deliveries. “You could take something like a person seeing their doctor on their iPad [and] take them out of that situation where they have to then get out of bed, put clothes on, drive to the pharmacy, and potentially stand in line with other sick people or healthy people who they might risk getting sick,” says Liam O’Connor, Zipline’s COO. Instead, someone can “have that experience where their prescription shows up on their doorstep 15 minutes after the hangout with a doctor,” he says.
Customers near Pea Ridge can use Walmart’s app to choose from thousands of small items, from vitamins and eye drops to baby food. A Walmart employee will bring the item to a Zipline platform behind a store in the area, and a Zipline employee will load and launch the drone. Customers can track the drone via app as it flies over their yard, 15 to 30 minutes later. There’s no delivery fee, and the drops are accurate to the space of a “a couple of parking spaces,” says the company.
In Ghana, where the company built the world’s largest drone delivery network, Zipline makes lifesaving deliveries of blood to remote clinics, and after the pandemic began, also started delivering personal protective equipment and COVID-19 vaccines. It also operates in Rwanda, Nigeria, and Japan. In the U.S., it started making deliveries of PPE between health clinics last year. The deliveries for Walmart will be the company’s first in the U.S. to go directly to customer’s homes, after a project that helped deliver PPE to hospitals in North Carolina. In another new partnership, it will also work with a healthcare system in the Salt Lake City area to begin delivering prescriptions and medical supplies to patients from a distribution center.
Using data from its deliveries in Rwanda, Zipline calculated that because drones run on batteries, carbon emissions are reduced by 99% compared to the same delivery made by a van. The emissions were also 98% less than using a car. The same thing wouldn’t be true for every type of delivery—an Amazon or UPS van making rounds in a neighborhood can be fairly efficient. But if someone needs a single item and can avoid driving to pick it up, there’s a clear climate advantage.