Sweetgreen Zipline drone delivery

Zipline finally gets into food delivery — with bougie salad maker Sweetgreen

The one thing that really helped Zipline stand out from the myriad of other drone delivery companies is not so much something it did do, but is something it didn’t do. Zipline never did the big partnership with a beloved fast casual restaurant chain — until now. The California drone delivery company is partnering with another California company that, in a very California way of course, makes fancy salads: Sweetgreen.

The news of the Sweetgreen drone deliveries was bundled into a big, virtual event that Zipline hosted today, that accompanied a series of other news drops that primarily revolve around the launch of an all new drone delivery platform.

Zipline Platform 2 P2 Zip drone
Photo courtesy of Zipline.

And much of the news — including, yes, the Sweetgreen partnership — changes the stereotype around Zipline, which at its inception primarily focused on delivering medical products (like blood samples, vaccines, small equipment) between hospitals and rural areas in Africa.

“In a few short years, Zipline went from serving a narrow need in logistics to become a national infrastructure delivering a wide range of products,” said Zipline CEO Keller Rinaudo in a recorded statement during Zipline’s virtual press event on Wedesday “As a result, Zipline is now the largest autonomy delivery system — autonomous delivery system on earth. We have flown the equivalent of going to the moon and back 80 times.”

But particularly with the salad delivery, Zipline is joining others including Flytrex and Google-sibling Wing in delivering beloved fast casual restaurant meals to people’s homes. While Wing turned to Chipotle in its early days, Zipline’s first fast food partner is a Los Angeles-based salad chain, Sweetgreen.

Of course, much of the company’s developments are pegged around its new delivery platform, called Platform 2 (P2).

What to know about Zipline’s new Platform 2 (P2)

P2 is mostly notable for being far quieter than any other drone. Zipline says it’s practically silent, and was designed so that any hum of the motors is masked to sound like leaves rustling in the wind. The new platform is also promising to be faster and more precise. Zipline says it’ll delivery up to 7x as fast as traditional automobile delivery, given that it can complete 10-mile deliveries in about 10 minutes. 

Noise has been a common complaint from residents of other competitors, and Zipline seems to be taking a serious look at mitigating that.

Zipline Platform 2 P2 Zip drone droid loader
A Zipline droid in the loader. Photo courtesy of Zipline.

And besides smart engineering, the way Zipline’s drones actually fly impacts their noise. Unlike other drone delivery services, Zipline’s drones (which the company calls ‘Zips’) fly more than 300 feet above the ground, inevitably making them nearly inaudible given the distance. 300 feet tall is about as tall as The Statue of Liberty.

And the drone remains basically that high in the air throughout the process. When the Zip arrives at its destination, it hovers at that altitude as an autonomous delivery droid maneuvers down a tether, steers to the correct location, and gently drops off its package. Zipline says it’s all precise enough to have the package land within the area of a small patio table or on a home’s steps.

The system is all made possible by more than just simply a drone. There’s docking and charging hardware, software that integrates with third-party inventory management and ordering systems, Zipline’s own app, and an autonomous flight system to actually send off all those drones.

Zipline also shared details on its docking and charging hardware, which has many similarities to the all new Autoloader that competitor Wing announced earlier in March. Zip’s contraption has a similarly-light footprint that can be attached to any building or set up as a freestanding structure.

Each P2 Zip has a 10-mile service radius and can carry a 6-8 pound payload for out-and-back deliveries from a single dock. If it’s able to stop at a different dock to charge, which is a system Wing is touting too, then Zips can fly up to 24 miles one way from dock to dock, then charge at a different dock.

About that Sweetgreen drone delivery partnership

Over the last six years, Zipline has been operating a logistics network that mainly serves hospitals. But today, Zipline publicly announced that it is now getting into home delivery, and it chose Sweetgreen’s custom (and pricey) salads as one of its most-touted products that it can deliver.

Exact details are pretty slim, but Sweetgreen says the partnership will “further its mission of connecting people to real food in the U.S., while moving a step closer to its pledge to be carbon-neutral by 2027.” The company claims that, “by ordering through Zipline’s marketplace, Sweetgreen customers can get their orders using 97% less energy than traditional automotive methods.”

“The future of delivery is faster, more sustainable and creates broader access, all of which provides improved value for our customers,” said Jonathan Neman, Co-Founder and CEO of Sweetgreen in a prepared statement.

It’s unclear exactly where the drone deliveries would happen, though Sweetgreen currently operates more than 150 stores across 13 U.S. states including California, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Georgia, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Texas, Florida and the District of Columbia. Typically when drone delivery companies partner with fast casual food chains and retailers, though, the deliveries are limited to a relatively small geographic area.

For example, DroneUp will bring you stuff from Walmart, but only if you live within a mile of one of the participating stores which are sprinkled through six U.S. states. Jersey Mike’s sandwiches once shipped to you via Flirtey drones, but only to select residents of Holly Springs, North Carolina. Flytrex will send you a flying Philly cheesesteak, but only in certain areas of Durham, North Carolina.

If and when Zipline salad deliveries arriving in the U.S., expect them to also be limited by geographical area.

And what about when? Zipline released few official details, but don’t expect it to happen in 2023. Though at this point, it looks like the company is on track for a 2024 Sweetgreen launch.

Other companies and organizations are getting in on Zipline home delivery, too

Sweetgreen is the catchiest name, but Zipline says several businesses across the healthcare and restaurant sectors have already signed on to use its new home delivery service. That includes Intermountain Health, which has already been using Zipline drones to deliver prescriptions to patients’ homes in the Salt Lake City metro area since last fall.

And true to its roots of deliveries in developing countries, Zipline’s first customer, the Government of Rwanda (which it began serving back in 2016), is back for more. The Government of Rwanda will use the company’s new home delivery service to enable urban aerial last-mile delivery to homes, hotels and health facilities in Kigali and elsewhere in the country. 

What does the drone delivery timeline look like?

A close-up of the newly-announced Zipline droids as part of the new P2 system. Photo courtesy of Zipline.

Zipline said it plans to conduct more than 10,000 test flights across about 100 aircraft this year. Deliveries to customers using P2 will follow.

The big tech upgrade follows a history of advancement in Zipline hardware. Last summer, Zipline announced  a new Detection and Avoidance (DAA) system that can monitor not just its static surroundings like trees and buildings, but also other aircraft in real-time.

Of course, Zipline is no stranger to drone deliveries — it’s just the P2 that’s new. Zipline’s initial, long-range platform, P1, has autonomously flown 40 million miles worth of commercial deliveries, according to the company.

“Today we’ve flown more than 500,000 real world deliveries and we’re adding technology to our system that prepares us to reach billions of more people around the world,” said Okeoma Moronu, Head of Global Aviation Regulatory Affairs at Zipline. “Our next generation platform will enable us to operate with the precision needed to fly safely into more complex environments and over more highly populated areas.” 

In fact, Zipline is generally considered the largest drone delivery company in the world, having conducted more deliveries than any other. And according to German-based analytics firm Drone Industry Insights, Zipline has 3x more employees than second-place Wing.

Zipline also seems to be growing exponentially. The company says it completed more deliveries in 2022 than in all previous years combined, and it has plans to complete about 1 million deliveries by the end of 2023.

By 2025, Zipline says it expects to operate more flights annually than most airlines. For context, American Airlines, which is the largest U.S. airline by market share, conducted 851,000 flights in 2022, according to data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. Southwest Airlines, which is the No. 1 U.S. airline in terms of most actual departures, conducted 1.267 million flights in 2022.

“Our vision is a global logistics system that provides a service unlike anything anyone has experienced before,” Moronu said. “(It’s a future where drone deliveries will go from novel to normal, where everyone has access to a better quality of life because they’re able to get what they need, when they need it.”

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