Special delivery: Zipline, UPS partner to carry medical supplies by drone in Rwanda – CNET
This drone is cute. Two red wings sprout from its short, lightweight body. It’s little and sort of tubby, seeming to exclaim, “I’m an airplane too!”
But its mission will be vital: The drones, manufactured by Zipline, will deliver blood and rabies vaccines to remote Rwandan health clinics. A small paperboard box filled with the lifesaving medical supplies fits into the belly of the drone, along with a parachute. Flying long distances over frequently washed-out roads, the drones get help to those in need faster than the current delivery methods of motorcycles and trucks.
Zipline, headquartered in Northern California, will have muscle behind its diminutive drones. It’s partnering with the UPS Foundation, the shipping giants’ humanitarian wing, and the Gavi Vaccine Alliance, which helps distribute vaccines in Rwanda and beyond.
The Rwandan government will pay for each delivery Zipline makes. The arrangement is a unique path to testing drone shipping, a much-hyped service that no company in the US has yet been able to deliver on.
Rumors abound about Amazon, Walmart and Google developing their ability to deliver by drone, for example, but the Federal Aviation Administration currently restricts drone operation tightly. It’s still sorting out what to do about the nascent technology buzzing through America’s busy airspace. But things are different in Rwanda.
The country’s aviation regulator has cleared Zipline for takeoff. That’s possible partly because Rwandan airspace is simpler, said Keller Rinaudo, CEO and founder of Zipline. There are fewer hobby pilots, parachuters and commercial flights for a drone to dodge. There’s also less bureaucracy.
“In reality, they are able to move a little faster,” Rinaudo said at a press event held at Zipline’s headquarters on Thursday. Seated on a stage with UPS Foundation President Eduardo Martinez, Rinaudo explained that the FAA faces a conundrum.
“The main thing the FAA wants is data,” Rinaudo said, but it can’t get data without letting people operate drones.
So off to Rwanda go the Zipline drones. Starting in July, health workers can order blood from Zipline’s hub with a text message, something the company’s employees frequently compared to ordering a pizza — it even takes 30 minutes for the blood to arrive. Rabies vaccines will become available at a later time, Rinaudo said.
The Zipline drone has two fixed wings, looking more like a model airplane than the insectlike quadcopter drone. On Thursday, its launch in front of the gathered reporters is a dramatic event. Placed in a cradle at the bottom of a metal beam angled up toward the horizon, the drone takes off with a hiss and a bang. It shoots up the metal beam and into the sky, circling the airspace over Zipline HQ.
Soon it’s making laps a few hundred yards away, measuring the wind before making its drop. After charting a course, the drone swoops in and ejects the box, which falls quickly despite its fluttering plastic parachute. It thuds to the ground, but inside, the plastic packet containing (fake) blood and a bottle of medicine are in tact.
Then the drone heads back. It lands, but Zipline protects its landing mechanism as a trade secret and asked reporters, as a condition of attending the event, not to describe it.
Everything from the moment the plane takes off is automated, and the plane is full of sensors that send flight information back to the ground to be logged and interpreted by Zipline engineers. That data that will be invaluable to the company as it builds its credibility as a drone delivery company.
With UPS involved, it’s easy to wonder what the shipping giant has in mind for future drone deliveries. Asked what UPS thinks it will gain from its involvement, Martinez said the company’s foundation always gains valuable information when it works in disaster and humanitarian relief projects.
“We obviously learn about this process,” he said of the drone delivery program, “but this is a strictly humanitarian mission and we’re excited to be a part of it.”