Zipline’s Okeoma Moronu shares growth plans for drone delivery (including U.S. expansion)
Meet Okeoma Moronu, Legal Counsel at Zipline, which is the world’s first, national-scale, autonomous, instant drone delivery service. It specializes in using drones to bring lifesaving and critical medicine to the world’s most difficult-to-reach places.
Do you know an awesome drone girl I should profile? Contact me here. This interview with Okeoma Moronu has been edited for clarity and length.
Okeoma Moronu joined Zipline in November 2019 as Legal Counsel, bringing with her more than 10 years of expertise working everywhere from Amnesty International and the United Nations to work in the aviation industry including a role at helicopter service provider CHC Helicopter. She has a law degree from Columbia Law School.
And, just a year after joining Zipline, the company was named the top drone delivery company of 2020 by Drone Industry Insights. Zipline operates on-demand drone deliveries of medical supplies ranging from COVID-19 vaccines to emergency medicines to the routine resupply of thousands of health facilities and home-delivery of health products.
Moronu shared with The Drone Girl some of the company’s growth plans, their key to actually scaling a drone delivery company and more drone industry insights.
Drone Girl: You have an incredible legal background. What drew you to working for Zipline?
Okeoma Moronu: The easy answer is the mission. The more complex answer is that Zipline gives me the opportunity to take my skills and background as an aviation attorney to work at the leading edge of an organization that I believe will transform the way communities live globally. I love the idea that drone delivery can help take congestion off the streets, so my kids live in a world where they get to roam more freely and safely.
Drone Girl: Given Zipline’s position as currently the only drone delivery program operating at a national scale, what unique challenges does Zipline have?
Okeoma Moronu: As a pioneer in automated, on-demand delivery, we feel like we have a unique responsibility to set the tone for how this industry moves forward. Not just by setting a standard for safety and reliability, but also by demonstrating the incredible benefits this technology can have. We don’t want to limit ourselves to test flights; we want to showcase the transformative impact instant delivery can have for systems, communities and individuals around the world.
Drone Girl: I see a lot of companies doing one-off drone deliveries, like flying to a controlled group of people on a specific day for a limited time. How does that differ from the scale that Zipline operates on?
Okeoma Moronu: Zipline is the first and only automated, on-demand delivery service to operate at multinational scale. To date, we’ve flown more than 13 million autonomous miles and nearly 200,000 flight hours. Today, we make a delivery every four minutes, and our total service area encompasses more than 2,500 healthcare facilities and 25 million people.
At the same time, we are working to more than double this as we expand our services in Ghana and launch in Nigeria, Japan and the United States over the next year.
DG: For other companies that want to get on Zipline’s level of actually building a scalable, automated, on-demand delivery service, what should they be thinking about and focusing on?
OM: Partnership. Our partners—from regulators, to healthcare facilities, to the government in Ghana—play a vital role in enabling us to be successful in our mission to transform systems and serve all people equally. Take, for example, our work distributing COVAX vaccines in Ghana, the first time COVID-19 vaccines were distributed at national scale via unmanned aircraft. This distribution effort was successful because we were already deeply embedded in Ghana’s health system, and because of our work with valued partners like Ghana’s Ministry of Health, the Ghana Civil Aviation Authority, Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, and the UPS Foundation.
DG: Gosh, I remember when that UPS Foundation partnership began back in 2016. It’s encouraging to see how it has flourished!
OM: One company, no matter how large or experienced, cannot enact systemic change on an island. There needs to be the right regulatory environment, willing healthcare or retail partners, and countries and communities excited to welcome this innovation.
DG: What sort of considerations and infrastructure are overlooked when companies say they want to run a drone delivery program?
OM: One of the biggest considerations often overlooked is the community relations aspect of automated, on-demand delivery. It comes down to two things: education and impact.
This technology is exciting and transformative, but it’s also new and different for most people. It’s imperative that companies educate people on what this technology is, how safely and reliably it operates, and the tangible impact it will have.
DG: What’s one thing that would make your job easier?
OM: More deliveries. I firmly believe that Zipline has the reliable technology, people and processes in place to make safe instant logistics a widespread reality, and change the way systems like healthcare operate. But, as with any new technology, there’s a certain learning and acceptance curve we are going through as people see what this technology is, what it’s capable of, and that it’s safe and reliable.
DG: It sounds like a sort of chicken and egg conundrum! We need more deliveries to happen to prove they work so we can get more deliveries, but it’s hard to make more deliveries happen on a lot of levels without having proven they work.
OM: As we continue to build a track record for our company, and unmanned aircraft more broadly, I know the benefits will speak for themselves.
DG: Zipline has done work in a wide range of countries, and really only just expanded to doing U.S. deliveries in 2020. How are safety (and other federal) rules in the U.S. different than in some of the more developing countries that Zipline operates in?
OM: Every airspace, and every regulatory environment, is different, and thus requires a slightly different approach. Some airspaces, like that in the U.S., are more complex and may require additional considerations. At Zipline, our number one priority is safety, and our closest partners are the FAA and other aviation safety authorities around the world. We work in lockstep with these organizations to ensure that we always meet rigorous safety and operating standards.
DG: What do you think the future of drone safety will look like, and how does Zipline fit in?
Drone safety will only become more complex as more unmanned aircraft take flight, and as these services move into more densely populated areas—but this industry is up to the challenge.
DG: You live in Costa Rica; amazing!! Where’s the best place to fly drones in Costa Rica?
OM: I live near the beach which is wonderful, but also pretty far away from the major medical centers in larger cities. I’d love to see medical drone deliveries like Zipline between the bigger cities and the smaller coast towns.
DG: I can totally see that. I like that you are going straight to the delivery use case!
OM: As a parent, it would add an important extra level of comfort to know that medical supplies from the best hospitals in the country are available right in my small community.
DG: Medical supplies are important, sure, but if you could have a delivery drone bring you anything right now, what would it be?
OM: We’re remodeling our house in Costa Rica right now. I constantly need to buy random things like new door handles. But it takes seven or 10 days to have them delivered. I would love to be able to order online and have a drone deliver it to me on demand without waiting a week–or losing a whole day driving to pick it up myself.
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