Health + Wellbeing

Prototyping the Perfect Landing for Last-mile Medicine and Blood Cargoes

Delivering last mile cargo of medicine and blood

In 2014, IDEO​.org and The Wasserman Foundation set out to explore the potential of drone technology to address major health challenges. 

As part of this exploration, a convening was held with leaders from the global health and drone tech space to envision what the world would look like in 15 years. Together, we projected ourselves in a future that did not yet exist and made commitments about how to create it.

What would it take to safely and efficiently deploy drones to meet the health needs of remote communities?

Soon after, IDEO​.org was introduced to Zipline, a startup pioneering last-mile deliveries of medicine and blood. Their winged drones far surpassed the range of previous quadcopters, and they could drop packages at GPS coordinates with precision and ease.

As Zipline honed their new technology and prepared for pilot, they brought in IDEO​.org to help design two core elements of the service: the packages carrying medicine, vaccines, and blood and the user experience for staff and communities receiving them.

Delivering the precious cargo


The packages needed to be tough enough to survive the impact of a 100-foot drop and adaptable enough to hold anything from vaccines to fragile medicine containers to bags of blood. We didn’t want to burden the already-stretched supply chain or create more disposable waste—so the final package design needed to be compostable or part of a closed loop system.

We built over 60 prototypes and conducted 80+ drops from the roof of our studio—testing our assumptions and designing for trade-offs along the way. A number of early prototypes relied on cushioning or crumple zones to absorb the impact of the drop. We initially discarded parachutes altogether, afraid that any drag would set the package off course.

Our assumptions changed after watching a 1947 NASA video on parachute experiments—it was clear that in the end, controlling the falling speed was the most critical part. Cushioning alone couldn’t stop the breakage of the contents as the packages approached terminal velocity during their 100’ journey to the ground. What if the parachute could just maintain the trajectory of the package in the straight line?

The final package design was an ultra-light box that could be made of fabric or cardboard, with modular inserts to cater to a range of contents. A special integrated parachute was engineered with a hole—it maintains enough speed to keep it on course but slows it enough to prevent damage to the insides. The different elements folded flat, designed to be transported easily to launch sites and integrated into the teams’ process.

But getting the packaging right was only half the battle. For Zipline’s service to live up to its potential, it needed a brand that would engage communities whose exposure to technology had been limited, who associated drones with destruction more than wellbeing.

The package distributes impact and reinforce edges. The different elements are separated between glass and plastic with extra protection in the necks of the bottles.

From symbols of war to flying helpers


In order to assuage potential fears of future-facing technology that is often used for war and surveillance and instead highlight the magical nature of the drones’ capabilities, we turned to the community. We quickly learned that we needed to highlight the brand’s core values of immediacy, speed, and simplicity in one clear promise: Health, on time.

The branding and communications needed to account for low-literacy and a diversity of languages in many of the communities Zipline would serve—it would have to rely heavily on pictograms, explaining the service and how it works in terms everyone can understand. We used the analogy of a stork, famous for transporting the most precious of cargo, so that Zipline planes could be seen as helpers. This message was reinforced in every element of visual design, from the planes and packaging to the posters and pamphlets. 

A bird’s-eye view 


In October 2016, Zipline launched the world’s first drone delivery system operating at national scale in Rwanda. Now, blood can be sent directly to one of 21 facilities in less than 30 minutes. Zipline has made over 10,000 deliveries of which a third have been in emergency life-saving situations.

Zipline’s long-term mission is to build instant delivery for the planet, allowing on-demand delivery of medicines and other products at low cost without using a drop of gasoline.” 

This year Zipline established a second base in Rwanda, bringing almost all 12 million citizens within range of its lifesaving service.

Zipline has begun operations in Ghana where it is building the world’s largest drone delivery network serving 2,000 health facilities and 14 million people. Later this year, Zipline will begin operations in the United States.

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