Day 2 and we're still live! Keep the questions coming!

We are Zipline , the world's first drone delivery service operating at national scale. A lot of folks claim to do crazy things, but we're a bit different because we really are doing crazy things.

We've been making real deliveries since last October. We've made several thousand flights in Rwanda, delivering real blood to real patients at eight different hospitals across the country. We've built have an awesome team running flights seven days a week, well into the night. Just today, we made 17 blood deliveries, including one delivery to each of the 8 hospitals we serve!

Our engineering and business team here in the U.S. is located on a cattle ranch overlooking the Pacific Ocean where we also do all of our test flights.

We take a pretty different approach than most companies when it comes to tackling seemingly-impossible problems. We're here today because we think we're working on something pretty special and not that many people know about it.

Joining us today, I've peeled away some folks to answer all of your questions.

  • Abdoul (AbdoulSalam) leads our Distribution Center in Rwanda. He's a hacker, tinkerer, and work-horse. One of the smartest Rwandans you've ever met! (It's also the middle of the night for Abdoul right now - thanks for staying up!)
  • Alain (zipline_alain) is a fellow Redditor and software engineer. He's built an ordering system that is simpler than checking out on most sites, yet works over WhatsApp, phone, or web when the Internet decides to work.
  • Jeremy (jdschw) designs our automated air traffic control. He enables fleets of our Zips to fly together, safely.
  • Ciara (zipline_ciara) runs recruiting, has the sweetest pitbull (Sarge!), and will climb any rock she finds.
  • Lastly, I'm Ryan (zipline_ryan), I lead the software team and spend a lot of time thinking about what the future looks like.

Checkout our website and apply to us if you are excited by our mission. More photos and videos on Twitter.

Proof - here is Alain, Ryan, and Jeremy. Abdoul is in Rwanda and Ciara is working from the road today.

We'll be here taking your questions starting at 4:30p PDT (7:30p EDT) and we'll stay as long as you've got questions! And, we're live! Ready to take your questions.

Comments: 373 • Responses: 31  • Date: 

viktour1976 karma

Hey guys, thanks for doing this.

  1. What was/is the most technically challenging hurdle to get zipline to be successful

  2. What is/was the most non-technically challenging hurdle to get zipline to be successful

  3. Why blood deliveries?

jdschw85 karma

Hi viktour19. I'll try to answer your questions one at a time.

  1. Generally speaking, the most technically challenging hurdle is the whole project! We are the first company in the world to build and deploy a viable commercial drone delivery system. Specifically, I would say that the vehicle navigation and autopilot, which was made in house at Zipline, has been the part that has taken the most time and effort so far. Going forward, the biggest challenge is scaling and hardening our system so it can support hundreds of deliveries per day, and thousands of deliveries per vehicle.

  2. The most non-technically challenging part is definitely signing customers. Our customers are governments, and government bureaucracies are very conservative about trying out new technologies. Just ask the FAA!

  3. We deliver blood in Rwanda because it's the most immediate need, and the highest value that we can bring to their health system. We are able to extend and improve their health network by taking over all blood supply for several hospitals across their country. If the need in another country is different, then we will deliver something else!

zipline_ryan56 karma

  1. I think the other under-rated challenge is going from a proof-of-concept (which many teams have shown!), to an operational system that runs day-in, day-out. It was not easy to build an aircraft that flies through storms. It was not easy building a launcher that can reliably send dozens of planes into the sky a day. It was not easy removing all the sources of human error. It was not easy knowing which decisions would pan out and which would be dead ends.

viktour1916 karma

Thanks for you responses. Seems reliability is a big part of all these, whats your approach to addressing this? If someone hypothetically shoots the zip in the air for instance what happens?

zipline_ryan48 karma

It likely keeps on flying! Kevlar fuselage, for the win!

But in all seriousness, we're high and fast and not flying over Texas. If all hell breaks loose, our planes have a parachute for gentle descent. Designed to deploy no matter what happens to that plane!

jdschw27 karma

You're correct that reliability is a huge deal. It's a big differentiator between a demonstration system and one that can operate at commercial scale.

Our approach to reliability is simple: we focus on reliability in every step of our process. We do HALT (Highly Accelerated Life Testing) on all of our parts, and we have really thorough hardware and software testbeds that can simulate thousands of flights on our vehicles.

But more than anything else, we learn a ton from the fact that our system is out in the world, encountering challenges that we never could have predicted, so we can constantly improve the reliability of the system in the real world.

olive_tree945 karma

What's one such challenge that you never imagined you would be faced with?

zipline_ryan4 karma

Wild wind updrafts shooting up the rim of a bowl-shaped hill. We fly many flights in simulation, but our wind models didn't predict anything that gnarly.

The inability to know what weather conditions the plane will be subjected to when it goes beyond the horizon. We always imagined we'd be able to hold launch if the weather wasn't good, but it turns out, that isn't doable in the real world.

gumgum1 karma

Human error is one thing, computer error quite another.

zipline_ryan3 karma

Indeed! And both manifest themselves in very different ways. You can concretely fix a computer error and have a guarantee it won't happen again. But areas that allow human error can only be reduced in probability if they are not designed out entirely.

noother8338 karma

What are the next locations that you guys are headed to? Do you have a time frame for when you'll be there? The world needs more Zipline hubs!

jdschw40 karma

Our next location is going to be the eastern half of Rwanda, at which point we'll be able to serve the blood delivery pipeline for the entire country's health care system.

After that, who knows? It just depends on which governments or companies sign contracts with us!

Mowljobk19 karma

Arent you scared that people will "hunt" these drones?

zipline_ryan33 karma

Hasn't been a problem so far!

ginoreynolds21 karma

Wow! What you guys are doing is brilliant!
Do you guys encounter much governmental red tape? Or expect to as you expand operations?

zipline_ryan27 karma

Not as much as you'd expect! The Rwandan government was more efficient and cooperative than you'd expect! We've just had to prove our safety record and the value.

zipline_ryan19 karma

Unfortunately, it is usually an uphill battle though, because perceptions start off pretty negative.

standish_18 karma

How fast does the Zip get accelerated during launch? Is there any concern about damaging delicate cargo?

Does the delivery get dropped from the air or is there a launch/landing system at both ends?

Also just want to say that the video of Abdoul and the Zip is astounding.

zipline_ryan34 karma

If you think launch is cool, wait until you see landing!

zipline_ryan22 karma

And we don't land at the delivery site. We drop packages from the sky then turn around and only land at the distribution center.

standish_13 karma

Wait a second, you have two landing systems?

This is the other one I saw. What is the reason to have 2 different systems?

Edit: Ah I see now, they are the same. I didn't see both arms in the video.

zipline_ryan7 karma

It is the same system, just a different camera angle.

zipline_ryan20 karma

If you're asking about why there are two air bags, its so we can always land into a headwind (a much easier maneuver!). It is one system that can pivot to catch a plane in either direction.

RustyTrombone6733 karma

holy crap that’s sick! Almost like an aircraft carrier catching a plane on the runway

zipline_ryan2 karma

An aircraft carrier on steroids. The line that the plane is catching swings up and down to track the tail hook, allowing us to catch even in crazy high winds.

Drakob14 karma

Who thought of the company name? It doesn't scream "drone deliveries"....

zipline_ryan3 karma

It's a simple metaphor for zooming through the sky, directly from Point A to B.

SmurfB0mb13 karma

Why did you decide to do this?

zipline_ryan9 karma

The problem was pretty clear and we thought technology could solve it. I'm pretty motivated by the clear positive impact we're having.

trekie889 karma

You hiring entry level mechanical engineers?

zipline_ryan9 karma

We are indeed! If you're passionate and ready to learn fast, apply!

report-zyther648 karma

What is your favourite dinosaur?

zipline_ryan28 karma

Dragonite

Hugemistakesweremade8 karma

What kind of security features are in place for the delivery of high priority items? I presume that your drones could be significant targets due to the value of their cargo.

I noticed in a previous comment the redundancies of your microcontrollers - What other redundancies have you focused on implementing in your designs?

zipline_ryan17 karma

Well, we actually remove a lot of valuable commodities from the remote hospitals and clinics. Many publicly available figures show waste and theft at these sites is rampant.

Instead, we keep all the inventory in one secured, high-tech distribution center. And our hospitals are literally waiting for the Zip to deliver.

We fly predetermined routes and have no way to receive external control or flight paths, so we don't have to worry about hackers!

CasusBellyBell5 karma

What's it like to fly through weather over Rwanda?

zipline_ryan13 karma

Fun fact: we've never shut down for weather! We simply don't know what the weather will be beyond the horizon!

TheMagicHorsey5 karma

Programmer here. Can you tell me a bit about what tech you use in your planes? What OS on your aircraft? What programming languages do you use? What hardware?

zipline_ryan15 karma

We've built our own avionics with our own autopilot. Our Zips (planes) are designed to be crazy reliable. So we've got 11 microcontrollers, with redundant processors for flight critical computation. And we use C on the plane, plus C++/Python on the ground.

ragnarmcryan3 karma

Got a github page? ;-)

zipline_ryan11 karma

We're not open source, but it would be a nice goal someday! Our software team is too small to support the overhead today.

Thedavidstoner4 karma

I'm assuming you all went to universities so (if you did) which university did you guys go to and what type of engineering degree did you earn?

P.S. I love your work. I'm currently an undergraduate senior in mechanical engineering and aspire to use my degree to help others in the world.

zipline_ryan4 karma

Most of us have engineering degrees. Mechanical, aerospace engineering, software, robotics, controls, industrial, etc. We don't care so much about what you've done, but more so about what you can do! Beyond just the degree, make sure to make the most of your time to learn by doing. You can only learn so much from classwork.

Thedavidstoner2 karma

That's super rad! How many of you are there?

And thanks for the tip! I actually just got accepted into a 2 6-month internship program for ME, so I'm very excited for the real world engineering experience. I had a hunch it's a lot different than classwork.

zipline_ryan5 karma

We had about 25 or so engineers (and counting!).

perryk892 karma

What is the weight limit per delivery?

zipline_ryan2 karma

About 3 1/2 pounds in a box a good amount bigger than a shoebox.

mschweini2 karma

Was it you guys that wanted to do a pilot study here in Costa Rica? What happened to that?

zipline_ryan3 karma

Yes! Costa Rica has a lot of interest in using Zipline to provide first-class health care to even the most remote populations.

MorphineBear2 karma

What kind of drones do you use and what are their limitations? I like how they land as shown on your website.

zipline_ryan3 karma

We've designed our own aircraft, purpose-built for this mission. We call them Zips. They are designed to be very reliable (who would want an ambulance that breaks down regularly?), very safe, and very fast.

They are limited by what the best technology can do today. But we've come up with many clever tricks to push those limits beyond what many considered possible. For example, by making Zip look more like an airplane and less like a quadcopter, we can fly about 10x further, at much higher speeds.

pixelkarma1 karma

How would someone become a drone pilot for an organization like yours?

zipline_ryan1 karma

We have a large (and growing) flight operations team. Apply through our website - http://flyzipline.com/jobs

offtheclip1 karma

Holy shit that's a cool delivery system! Do you have a video of one taking off and landing? Also what is your airport like?

zipline_ryan2 karma

Here's launch, delivery, and landing.

bertbuffet1 karma

What are your position towards governments who may posses a market for such technology due to their remote areas, but they still remain conservative about the usage of drones because of security reasons? I'm thinking of France, Australia, and even USA.

zipline_ryan1 karma

I'm pretty positive on these markets. They'll eventually come around – the need is too real.

[deleted]1 karma

[deleted]

jdschw2 karma

Tons of ways. If you're a smart person and you're looking for a job, you can apply to join our team! If you have friends who might be interested, tell them about us! If you're in Rwanda, donate blood!

zipline_ryan3 karma

Willow5361 karma

What you have here is an amazing life saving business and idea! Congrats on being innovative and clever. Is your technology and business model looking to expand in other developing third world countries with difficult terrain?

zipline_ryan2 karma

Yes! There is more demand than we can meet right now. But expect to see a lot more Zipline around the world very soon!

frenchhorngod-1 karma

Who stared in Forest Gump?

zipline_ryan2 karma

Tom Hanks!