On this episode of Too Embarrassed to Ask, Recode’s Kara Swisher and The Verge’s Lauren Goode are joined by Keller Renaudo, the founder and CEO of Zipline. His company flies drone airplanes to deliver critical medical supplies like blood to locations often unreachable by car or bike. Renaudo answered listener questions about drone safety and the future uses of his company’s technology.
You can read some of the highlights from their discussion at that link, or listen to it in the audio player above. Below, we’ve posted a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.
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Lauren Goode: So, Kara, you’re back from Washington, D.C.?
Kara Swisher: Yes, it was great. I had a great time there and I was also in North Carolina for a brief second.
LG: Oh okay. What were you doing there?
KS: Things. I was meeting with a lot of young entrepreneurs, this whole diversity, entrepreneur diversity thing. It was really cool, really amazing companies, and lots of women, people of color, sort of belying the idea that only white men can create things in this world.
LG: Were they tech companies that you were meeting with?
KS: Yeah, there were tech companies down there. They were all around Duke. That’s the research triangle down there.
LG: Oh yeah.
KS: I thought it was pretty cool. They were great and they’ve invited me many times and I agreed to come because I think I would like to support that kind of stuff.
LG: Many people have invited you many times to say many things.
KS: Many times. My time with Melania, it was nice. It was so nice that Donald was down at Mar-a-Lago, so we enjoyed ourselves.
LG: You guys had a nice little ladies’ lunch?
KS: Yeah, everybody ... It was the whole Melania family. I don’t know if you know they’re hiding there. In parts of the White House, they’re wandering all over.
LG: Good. I’m glad that you enjoyed your time. We missed you. We’re actually not in person today. If Kara sounds a little bit different, it’s because she’s at a remote studio in San Francisco. Hopefully, I get to see you in person again soon. It’s unfortunate that you’re not here because we have a really great guest in studio.
Today on Too Embarrassed to Ask, we’re talking all about drones. We actually did another episode on drones not too long ago with Recode’s April Glaser where we talked about some of the more convoluted rules around where you can fly drones. You can find that episode all the usual places, wherever you found this episode. Today, we’re looking at a completely different side of drones, and that’s how they’re being used for good, for humanitarian purposes.
KS: Amazon delivering a toothbrush to my door with a drone is not a humanitarian act, although some people might think it was.
LG: I have to say no. I mean, I would ...
LG: It’s good to have good breath and doing good for the people around you with ...
KS: Hygiene. I believe in good hygiene, yes, we all do.
LG: Good hygiene. But no. A drone delivering a toothbrush to you when you’ve forgotten your toothbrush isn’t quite a humanitarian act.
KS: Explain, for the people, who we have here, Lauren?
LG: We’re delighted to have Keller Rinaudo with us in studio. He is the CEO of Zipline and he actually spoke last year at Recode’s evening with Code Mobile event. Keller, welcome to Too Embarrassed to Ask, thank you so much for coming in.
Keller Rinaudo: Thank you for inviting me.
KS: Yeah, we’re very excited to have you because you’re a do-gooder. You’re a do-good-drone doer. I don’t quite know how to say it, but why don’t tell us about Zipline a little bit? I don’t think people know exactly what it is. We did have you onstage at one of our events and you talked about it. Why don’t you get people up to speed on how you got to this and what it is.
Yeah. Zipline is building the world’s first drone delivery service that’s operating at national scale, and our mission is to deliver medicine to the hardest-to-reach places in the world.
KS: Well, that’s easy. Okay, that’s not so easy. How did you get there?
We’re a team primarily of aerospace engineers and roboticists, and then also people from global public health. We were not only really fascinated by logistics, but we were most fascinated by places where logistics is really breaking down today and where there are what are basically unsolved problems at national or even global scale. I mean, a good example of that is that 5.2 million kids under the age of 5 die every year due to lack of access to basic medical products. There are many causes of that, but a big challenge is that the roads suck and logistics is really hard in a lot of the countries where this is happening.
In the same way that you ... 10 years ago, people would’ve said cellphones were never going to be useful in Africa. You can’t imagine that infrastructure working. Actually, cellphones have allowed a lot of these countries to totally leapfrog the absence of landlines and build infrastructure that has made people’s lives a lot better. We’re hoping to do the same for transportation and logistics in these countries using drones to leapfrog the absence of roads.
LG: How did you come in to this business? You had a whole other career — and I believe you were a rock climber at one point? What was the moment at which you said, “Drones for good. This is what I want to do”?
Yes, it’s true. I was at one point just living out of a car rock climbing full-time and I, about five years ago, started building robots. I was just really fascinated by robotics. In college, I got to build computers made of RNA and DNA that operate within human cells, but I also got to build a rock-climbing wall. It was kind of like that combination of building something really physical that you could see people using, you could see it making someone’s life better, but also getting a chance to see just the power of new technology and especially things that people consider science fiction today that are actually possible. That’s what really attracted me to robotics.
The more I learned about robotics, the more I understood, I think, where it’s going to be transformative in the next five to 10 years is logistics and transportation.
KS: Because it’s easier, one, and that it just gets around all kinds of things, right? In a lot of these countries where they don’t still have a lot of rules around this stuff, correct?
Well, certainly, we wanted to go to places where the need is really high. But actually, contrary to popular belief, you’d be surprised. The regulatory environment in Rwanda ... The regulator in Rwanda is just as ... It’s essentially just as organized as the regulator in the U.S. The difference is actually that because Rwanda is a smaller country ... Rwanda, by the way, is where we’re currently operating and delivering blood with autonomous aircraft. Because the Rwandan regulator is much smaller and it’s a smaller country, they can make decisions a lot faster. What’s actually happened is that the Rwandan regulator has implemented modern regulatory processes faster than we’d been able to do that in the U.S.
LG: Your company is based in San Francisco, but one of your biggest test beds right now is Rwanda. Are you making both the drone hardware and software to do this?
Zipline designs manufacturers and then also operates these vehicles totally from scratch. We design the flight computer and we actually design it in a way that we can ... We take a lot of lessons from how flight computers are designed for a 747, for example, but then we design it using cellphone components, so we can actually build something for one one-thousandth of the cost.
We write all the flight controls that actually allow the plane to fly autonomously to a destination and back. We design the airplane itself, the airframe. Then, we build them and we operate them. Our business model is a lot more like UPS. We’re not actually selling vehicles. We actually just get paid for every delivery that we do.
The reason we do all that from scratch is that when you kind of look at drones today, there is a really big gap. You can buy cheap consumer drones that are great for taking pictures but don’t last very long and could crash any moment, or you could spend $20 million on a predator drone, which the military can do and no one else can. The reality is there’s really nothing in the middle. It’s actually the middle that you need to serve with a commercial use case that would allow, for example, a country to deliver medical products in this way such that people can rely on it with their lives.
LG: One of the things I read about Zipline is that your company makes nonstop deliveries. The drones don’t actually land to deliver the goods. In this case, it would be blood, for example. They just drop stuff off and keep flying. What are some of the challenges?
KS: Why don’t you talk about ... Talk about what you do. Talk about the actual act of it, and then talk about the challenges.
Yeah, totally. We should cover the basics. The way Zipline works is that basically we work with administrator health or a health care provider in a country. We either locate near their distribution center or they basically pass goods to us to what you can think of as a really small warehouse. From that distribution center, we can do instant deliveries of those medical products in a matter of minutes to any location in a way that is cost comparable with cars and motorcycles today and it’s 20 times as fast and doesn’t rely on roads. The way we do that is we use an electric airplane that weighs about 25 pounds. That vehicle, we launch it off of what’s essentially a catapult.
Once the vehicle leaves, it’s completely autonomous, so it’ll fly in a straight line to the GPS coordinates of the delivery site that it knows it needs to deliver that product to. When it arrives at the delivery site, it’ll come closer to the ground. Then we drop the package from the plane, and we actually use something we call an air brake, which is essentially just kind of a really simple paper parachute. It might sound kind of goofy, but it actually is a really elegant solution. We can deliver with high accuracy basically onto the doorstep of a hospital or a lab or a health center, and then they instantly have the product they need to save a patient’s life inside.
Then the vehicle just turns itself around and comes back. The neat thing about delivering in this way is there is no chance of having a plane come to a human where a dog might come out of nowhere and chew on a wing or you might hurt a child who was in the landing zone, didn’t know it. Any of those complicating factors just don’t happen because the planes only take off and land in one controlled place in the country where we can actually train people on how to be around the planes.
LG: They’re being monitored by air traffic control, by the local government as well, so they’re not crashing into anything else in the sky?
Every flight that we fly, we’re communicating that information directly to air traffic control, so they know where our planes are; they know where other planes are. Also, because we fly really low to the ground, we’re generally not around other planes to begin with.
LG: How do you make money at this? I mean, because you have VC funding. How much have you raised?
To build Zipline, we’ve raised something like $35 million.
LG: Okay, from VCs? Silicon Valley VCs, correct? Largely.
LG: How do you make that money back, or are they just feeling like doing good across the world? Or you get paid by the health department, correct?
Yeah. Well, one of the coolest things when people see what we’re doing, people are always like, “Gosh, you’re so awesome for doing this humanitarian thing and for doing this philanthropy." What I’m always kind of stressing is like, “Look, this is not philanthropy.” Actually, I think it’s kind of a bummer that we view doing something good for people in the world and places where they really need it as being totally divorced from a sustainable business model. Our mission is really to show that you can do both. We get paid per delivery that we do in a way that allows us to be unit economic profitable from Day One, because the reality is delivering something like a burrito, there’s not a very high willingness to pay.
Whereas if you can deliver something that can have a huge impact on someone’s health or life, the willingness to pay for everyone involved, for government, for global public health providers and even for private companies is much higher. We think that the advantages of starting in this market by focusing on medicine and the advantages are A) that you can have a really positive effect on the world, B) that there is in fact higher willingness to pay for these kinds of deliveries and C) it’s also easier to get started from a regulatory perspective because people understand the need more clearly.
LG: What do you think is an untapped need that you could potentially address with Zipline drones? You’re delivering blood and medicine right now, right? Or you’re delivering medical supplies as well?
Oh my gosh. Don’t get me started, because I could talk forever about that. Right now, we’re just delivering blood.
LG: Just blood? Okay.
You might think, “Gosh, that’s really specific,” but Rwanda actually delivers about 35,000 units of blood a year. Fifty percent of that is going toward moms with postpartum hemorrhage.
LG: Where is the blood coming from?
Okay, good question. They do blood drives across the country. Once you take blood from someone, you then have to test to make sure it doesn’t ... For example, the person doesn’t have HIV, and then you also need to type it. Is it A, B, AB, A positive? They do all the testing and typing centrally in the capital city, in Kigali. Basically, all the blood gets drawn from donors. It all goes to Kigali. It gets tested and typed.
It’s actually very expensive to test and type a single unit of blood, even in Rwanda. Then they have to figure out, “Okay, now, how do we get all the blood back out to the 10 million people who need access to it and who live in hard-to-reach places?” That’s really the problem that we’re helping solve.
KS: You were going to say ... I didn’t mean to interrupt you earlier.
Yeah, I know, it’s okay.
KS: You mentioned postpartum mothers, right?
Yeah. You have 35,000 units of blood being delivered. Fifty percent is going toward moms with postpartum hemorrhage right after giving birth and 30 percent is going toward kids under the age of 5 who have severe anemia due to malaria. There’s a lot of it being distributed and it’s really precious. When people need it, their lives depend on it.
The challenge with blood is that you have plasma, platelets and red blood cells. Each one has different storage requirements and thermal requirements. It’s just really kind of a logistical nightmare. I had to figure out how to get these products to where they need to go. That’s what we’re doing today, just delivering blood. Our agreement with the Rwandan government right now is to serve 21 hospitals, which are the majority of hospitals in the country.
In terms of next steps, we’re already working with the government to begin delivering a host of other medical products, starting with vaccines and other urgently needed products for people. When you need it, you really need it fast.
Then something you and I spoke about a couple months ago, more and more we’re seeing interest from agricultural use cases, specifically animal vaccines and bull sperm. Believe me, when we started Zipline, we were not thinking we would be delivering sperm in our planes. It turns out that this is a really big market and you can have a big impact on the economic productivity of large percentages of the population in these kinds of countries, if you can improve the genetic quality of their cattle by delivering sperm in an efficient way.
Pretty weird, but kind of another cool example where you can have a big impact with no more infrastructure than what we already have set up.
KS: One of the things is drones have been used for bad things. Obviously, they’re now being used for commercial uses and all kinds of things. In some of these countries, spying and government use and military use has been used. How do you get over that idea of what kind of drone is this that’s coming at us? I mean, because you do have nervousness, I think, everywhere about these things flying around.
It’s certainly a challenge. Luckily, actually, we found that the most cynical place about drones is the U.S. When you actually go to some of the other countries that we’re currently working in or will be working in, the attitude toward these kinds of technology, it’s actually much more open-minded.
If you ask people, “How could this help?” The answer is always like, “It could deliver medical products fast.” One of the coolest things ... We were really worried about community acceptance because we don’t want to be perceived as having anything to do with, for example, the U.S. military. That’s important because when we’re going in and operating in countries, one of the questions we often get from the government is, “Is this going to be spying on us? Is this somehow related to the U.S.?”
KS: “Are you working for the Defense Department?”
First of all, one of the easy ways we can answer that question is that there aren’t cameras on the plane. We’re just focused on delivering medical products. Secondly ... Actually, one of the most interesting things is, now that we’ve launched and are basically operating on a national scale day in and day out, one of the things that’s blown us away, we were really worried about community acceptance. Actually, when you go and visit the distribution center in Rwanda, we have a fence around our distribution center just to keep things clear because planes are taking off and landing.
There’s a huge group of Rwandans day in and day out who line up on that fence and cheer every launch and every landing. It’s actually hard to even appreciate — without being there in person — just how excited and proud, just even the people who live around that distribution center, are of what it’s doing. When you ask them what they think about it, they just say, “Oh, it’s a sky ambulance.” So, it’s totally obvious to them what this is and why it’s needed.
LG: Which is good, because I’m pretty sure if Kara saw one in her backyard, she would shoot it down.
KS: I’d shoot it down, yeah.
LG: She says this all the time. If the drone ...
KS: I would.
You and most other Americans.
LG: Kara, that could be delivering life-saving blood to you and you would shoot it down.
KS: It’s fine. It would be fun.
KS: Last question, then we’ll get to listeners’ questions. What geographical areas are you targeting next? What are the hardest ones? The U.S., or you could do it almost anywhere?
Yeah. Since we’ve actually launched in Rwanda, I think it takes a special country to actually show it’s possible for the first time. I think this role used to really be played by the U.S. when you look at cars or airplanes or even space. I mean, the U.S. was really leading the way. Obviously, doing new things requires a little bit of appetite for risk and appetite for just a willingness to fail. Interestingly, Rwanda is kind of leading the world on that front right now, and I think it’s extraordinary that they’re doing that. Now that Rwanda has shown that this is possible and can actually save money and save lives, a whole bunch of other countries have reached out to us and are asking to set up similar kinds of infrastructure.
Those countries include other countries in East Africa that border Rwanda. They include countries in Southeast Asia, particularly archipelagos that just have impossible logistics challenges in terms of reaching people who aren’t connected by roads.
KS: Especially the name archipelago. I don’t even know what that is.
There’s a lot of islands.
LG: What about the U.S., though? I mean, do you hope to eventually operate in the U.S.?
Yeah. It’s bittersweet. It makes us incredibly proud to be serving a really innovative government like Rwanda. We’re also a U.S. company and we would be really ... I mean, we are incredibly excited to bring this technology to the U.S. In rural places in the U.S., we have a lot of the same challenges that you see in places like Rwanda. For example, from 2000 to 2013, life expectancy on average improved in the U.S., but in rural parts of the U.S., in many geographic regions, life expectancy actually decreased by 0.7 years in 13 years. So, it’s really beyond doubt that we are failing certain geographic areas, certain kinds of people in the U.S.
I think the current political climate shows just how divisive those kinds of failures can be. We’re really excited to bring this to the U.S. In fact, we were working with the previous administration and are beginning to work with the new administration to set up systems in a couple different places in the U.S. to just show it’s possible in terms of delivering product to rural areas.
LG: What areas are you looking at for that in the U.S.?
We recently made an announcement with the White House about serving islands in the Pacific or Northwest with blood, about helping the Navajo reservation deliver to places that typically have a hard time getting access. Then also, making deliveries to Smith Island in Washington D.C., which is an island with about 1,000 people living on it that has seriously adverse health outcomes as a result of it needing ... You having to take a two-hour ferry to get to medical care.
KS: All right. In a minute, we’re going to take some questions from our readers and listeners. First, Lauren Goode is going to read a word from our sponsor, and I’m supposed to say, “Ka-ching.”
Lauren, that was a very ka-chingy reading. I like that. It’s very enthusiastic.
LG: I’m working on that.
KS: Ka-ching, ka-ching, that’s double ka-chings from Kara.
LG: See? Anyway, okay, if you’ve been listening to the show, you know how it works. Every week, we take tech questions from our readers and listeners and we try to answer everything we can. This week, we’re answering your questions about how drones can be used to do good in the world. Now, you’re both going to answer these, but I think Mr. Zipline probably has most of the answers for us.
KS: Lauren, why don’t you ask the first question?
LG: Oh, I’m not even going to try to answer these. I mean, I do have this immense background in life-saving drones but otherwise ... Our first question is from John Reynolds. He is at @technogust on Twitter. “What’s the best use of drones you’ve seen from other companies that you might adopt and improve?”
I’m definitely really excited about what the next 10 years holds. We, as a company, are obviously just focused on delivering medical products. That’s a huge problem and that’s all we’re going to be doing for the next five years. Personally, I’m certainly incredibly excited about some of the efforts that are currently going to carry people. I think that ...
KS: Vertical lift-off and takeoff, that thing?
Definitely, definitely. I think people today don’t appreciate just how possible that is and how awesome it will be relying less on roads or getting rid of them altogether is going to make the spaces we live in way more awesome. We will spend way less time in cars. Today, it’s possible to design an electric vertical takeoff and landing motorcycle basically that one person could travel in that would weigh, I don’t know, like 700 pounds. That’s something I’m just personally really looking forward to.
LG: Is it technically a motorcycle then? I mean ...
I only say motorcycle.
LG: Does it have wheels?
No, no. I only say motorcycle because it’d be a single-passenger vehicle. I think it’s kind of a good way of thinking about it.
LG: I want to try this.
I think it’s incredibly exciting. I guess, personally, on that note, one of the things that we’re so motivated to do is ... the U.S. has really seen a resurgence in terms of IT, for example, technology, internet and mobile. But the U.S. used to really lead the way in aerospace innovation. An example that I’m obsessed with is that the DC3 in 19 — I think we built it in 1935. First modern passenger airliner. It took a year to design and build the first one and it cost $4.1 million, which in today’s dollars is like $73 million. The 787 Dreamliner that Boeing just built took 15 years to develop and it cost $34 billion. That’s 500 times more than the DC3.
You might ask, “Why are airplanes getting 500 times more expensive to build?” I talked to someone at Boeing, and they were like, “Well, it’s a much more complicated plane.” I was like, “Yeah, my iPhone 7 is a lot more complicated than my iPhone 1. It still cost the same.” The idea of technology ...
LG: Then using carbon fiber and ... I saw that thing in a Boeing tour last summer and it’s really crazy. It’s super cool.
I mean, it’s a cool plane, but it shouldn’t cost 500 times as much. The reality is ... the reason it cost a lot more is that you just have monopolies in aerospace. These monopolies are the result of a really challenging regulatory environment where it’s very difficult to build new planes. This didn’t always used to be the case. My hope is that at least some of the work we’re doing can help us move back in that direction of being able to have startups building things that fly in the U.S.
KS: All right. Going into the next question, from Sandy Resler: “What are the prospects for the FAA loosening up the regs to make drones more useful non-line-of-sight?” Let’s talk about those regulations.
Well, I certainly don’t want to bore anybody. The FAA just came out with new regulations that now does allow for commercial operation of drones within a certain set of parameters. Those parameters are within visual line of sight. You have to have a trained pilot, you can only fly in the day, couple other things. They also have a way of applying for exemptions to those parameters. In fact, the FAA has already granted and set a precedent for issuing exemptions. For example, Burlington Northern Santa Fe got an exemption to fly beyond line of sight to actually survey railroads. CNN just got an exemption to actually fly over populated areas so that they can film, I think, protests.
There’s already been a precedent set for getting all the exemptions you’d need to do this in the U.S. The tricky part is really just getting the FAA to a point where they’re comfortable enough with the technology to issue all the exemptions necessary for one use case to actually show that drone delivery can happen in the U.S. in a commercially viable way. Obviously, one of the reasons that we’ve been very careful in recording our safety record in Rwanda is that we’re going to need that safety record to convince the FAA to move a little bit more quickly and not allow the U.S. to fall behind in this kind of technology more than we need to.
KS: Our next question is from ED Jones at @edj on Twitter, “Could drones be one potential answer to the man-made famine conditions in South Sudan?” That’s a really good question.
That’s an awesome question. We get several emails a week from governments or from U.S. government agencies who are actually solving just these kinds of problems. I think it’s tough for people who aren’t involved in these kinds of situations to understand, but in a lot of instances, for example, Ebola is another good example. In a lot of these places that the U.S. goes in and tries to provide help or the governments are trying to provide help, you’re asking people to put their lives on the line. Every delivery that you do, a vaccine in the case of Ebola, if you’re trying to deliver food in South Sudan to a village that really needs it, that person is in some instances is almost knowingly sacrificing their life to do those deliveries.
That’s incredibly noble, but my hope is that technology can make that easier in the future. I mean, the great thing about using robots in really, really tough situations is that if the worst happens and something gets shot down ...
LG: It’s just a robot.
It’s just a robot. Nobody cares.
LG: I mean, have you thought seriously about either pivoting or adding that on to your current strategy, and saying, “Okay, now we’re going to start doing food”?
Yeah, we certainly have. We received a very serious request from the U.S. government a couple months ago that really made us seriously consider whether we could do it. We ended concluding that we needed to stay focused on serving our first customers and making sure to really do right by them and set up basically sustainable infrastructure for many years. But definitely, in the next few years, I think we’ll be ready as a company to start also serving those more emergency use cases where no doubt this technology could have a really big impact and save lives.
KS: All right. Here’s the critical question that’s coming from Stephanie M. Lee, “What’s your plan to fight back against eagles?” Stephanie has a BuzzFeed link, I should note.
People always ask about birds.
KS: There was a recent eagle attack. There was a nice picture.
I never want to say that something is more a PR stunt than not but that’s ...
KS: An eagle was looking for PR. You think that is ...
Maybe the people who bought the eagle were looking for PR.
KS: They’re like the president. They want a lot of attention.
LG: I was just going to say that it’s just something about America right now. Is it a bald eagle looking for PR?
I don’t think it was America, though. I don’t remember. I think it was some other country.
KS: In any case, there are eagle issues.
There actually aren’t. People always ask, “Well, what about bird strikes?” The reality is, although we don’t have a sense-and-avoid system on our plane, they can reliably detect birds. Birds have a pretty good sense-and-avoid system for a loud electric aircraft coming in their direction. So far, birds do a pretty good job of staying out of our way. The plane is designed to have redundancy in every aspect. So at some point, if we actually were to hit a pigeon or something, the plane would still be able to fly itself home. We’ll solve that problem when it happens, and so far I think it’s the least of our worries.
LG: I mean, a bird strike against a robotic plane is a lot better than a bird strike against a commercial plane.
I think they made a movie about that.
LG: I think there was a movie. I saw it. It was not very good.
KS: Everything turned out okay in that movie.
LG: We all know how it ends, which is good. I actually covered that when it happened, when the plane went into the Hudson River, but that’s a whole other podcast. The next question is from Alex Hardy. I can’t hardly wait. Alex has written to us many times before. Alex, thanks for your questions. “Are human-carrying drones a viable car replacement or a pipe dream?” We talked about this earlier. I wish I had seen his question, but Alex, yes, it sounds like vertical motorcycles are on the way. Anything else you’d want to add to that?
Gosh, not really. I guess the reality is that people currently ... Even just for what we’re doing right now in Rwanda day in and day out, most people in the U.S., A) don’t think it’s physically possible and believe it’s science fiction. The ironic thing is that I think a lot of ... I mean, things that we often think are science fiction are often not only possible but are actually happening in the world right under our noses. I’m hopeful that use case that Alex is talking about will be one of those things in the next few years.
KS: All right. It’s a thing that a lot of Silicon Valley guys are obsessed with. I know that the Uber people are. There’s all kinds of people that are interested in this. I’m not going to pronounce this good, Ondřej Kozák, I think it is, @AlvynTC. Question, “Aren’t you afraid that somebody hacks, steals the drones with the supplies? Someone steals your blood delivery services, are you scared of that?” That’s a very good question, actually.
Certainly. We’re working with governments, and because we’re providing a service that people rely on with their lives, we have to meet a really high bar in terms of the security both of the vehicle and then also the products that we’re delivering. Luckily, the products we’re delivering right now are at a pretty low ... It’s just low likelihood of being stolen, because AB+ blood is really only useful for the patient who it’s showing up for, it’s not very valuable in the black market. In the future, we might be delivering products like morphine that are actually controlled substances that you could imagine being stolen.
In those kinds of instances, we actually have an ability to do what’s essentially a digital signature where the person who’s ordering the product will get a text message about one minute beforehand saying, “Zip approaching the delivery site. Please walk outside.” When they walk outside, we can essentially have them sign on their phone to say that they’re ready at the delivery site to receive delivery. That’s one way of ensuring security of the package.
In terms of security of the vehicles, I mean, we build our own end-to-end encryption from scratch. I think one of the challenges is a lot of companies get started and they build a whole system and then they’re like, “Uh-oh, we need to make it secure.” Then they try to layer on security at the last minute. We’ve really built end-to-end encryption into all of the infrastructure that actually flies the vehicle, particularly how we communicate with the vehicle. When you think about, like, if terrorists wanted to use a vehicle to do something horrible, we’re a lot more secure than, for example, a DJI quadcopter that you could go buy for a thousand bucks. Although I think it is possibly going to be a security threat in the future, it’s more likely that terrorists will use an unsecured consumer product rather than try to hack an enterprise-grade product like ours.
LG: Are all drones inherently hackable in some way, though?
Well, I guess you could say any system is inherently hackable to some degree or another. I don’t think drones are any more hackable than your cellphone. I think, in the future, most drones are going to communicate through the cell networks. In fact, that’s what our vehicles do. We actually have SIM cards in all of our planes. In Rwanda, we buy a family plan for the vehicles because that’s how we get the best rates. We always joke when it comes to this family plan because — I’m serious. We literally bought a family plan. We have all the SIM cards. We put them all on the vehicles. We always joke because they have no idea what we’re doing with those SIM cards.
If the mobile carrier ever looked at our usage, they’d probably ask some questions because it’s pretty weird family usage. It’s like a family that drives back and forth in straight lines at a hundred miles an hour all day long.
LG: Yeah, great. That’s great. Okay, the last question is from Sham Sandhu on Twitter, “What have you learned from the Rwanda pilot that you did not already know?”
I actually know Sham. I think he’s been to our secret headquarters.
LG: There are secret headquarters? Where is this?
Well, we actually work from a farm where we do all of the engineering development and manufacturing and flight operations. It’s one of the things that allows us to move really fast by having everything in one place. Instead of having a fancy office in the city, we wanted to basically be able to have everybody on the team actually using the product on a day-to-day basis because it helps us build a really good product. In terms of the ...
LG: And this farm is a secret?
Well, yeah. We don’t ... Yeah.
LG: Okay. So if you told us now in the podcast, just us, it would no longer be a secret.
You guys should come visit in person.
LG: Okay, that sounds great.
We’d love to have you. In terms of the things we’ve learned, I think that in a lot of ways, building the technology is the easy part. The hard part is designing a system that can integrate with a national health care system and working closely with doctors and nurses to make sure they understand how they can actually use this to allow them to provide higher level of care to patients and ultimately save lives. Then it’s also making sure that the community around those hospitals and health centers know what the heck is going on, because a lot of people that we fly over have certainly never ridden in planes. They may have never even seen a plane other than one flying over at 35,000 feet.
We really have tried hard to make sure that we’re doing a good job of communicating what this is, why it’s important, I think, so far so good, but it is really hard and it takes time. We’ve tried to be conservative in terms of how we roll out because the cost of getting something wrong and letting our customer or our patients down is really high. It’s really important that we get it right. We try to go slow and be conservative and pay just as much attention to the customer integration piece as we do the technology piece.
LG: Is this your first startup?
Yeah. For all practical purposes. In college, I ran that climbing wall as a little, I guess, nonprofit. I certainly have been building all kinds of different projects my whole life, but it feels like Zipline now is my life to a large degree. I’d say I’ve learned everything I learned about startups at Zipline.
LG: Kara could probably tell you a thing or two about startups.
KS: Yeah, I’m not doing anything good — like, this is good — and I really appreciate what you’re doing in Zipline. It’s a terrific company.
LG: Kara can probably also give you some advice on VCs if you ever need that.
KS: Avoid them at all costs. Bloodsuckers, so to speak, but you’re delivering blood with their money, so I’m good with that. Anyway, this has been another great episode of Too Embarrassed to Ask. Keller, thank you for joining us.
Thank you so much for having me.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.