Coddington, Hicks & Danforth

Northern California drone company seeks to save lives

The prospect of commercial drones being used for delivery purposes is an exciting one. The advent of rapid drone delivery for small goods could very well prove revolutionary in the coming future. While this ever-advancing technology is a potential boon for the e-commerce industry, one California company is exploring ways that drones could improve health care as well.

Zipline, a surging startup in the drone space, is currently testing what would be the fastest drone in the world. Hitting airspeeds of up to 80 mph, Zipline's new aircraft could be an incredible logistics asset for major retailers like Amazon. The company, however, is also working on some nobler ambitions: they're aiming to use drones to deliver blood to areas that desperately need it.

How the technology works

Zipline's humanitarian designs for drone technology have already gone into effect. While many companies are still looking into establishing a drone infrastructure, Zipline has already done it in Rwanda, where they've been delivering blood to remote clinics.

The company launches its drones from Rwanda's capital city of Kigali, which then travel over difficult terrain to locations where delivery would otherwise take up a costly amount of time. For individuals in dire need of blood transfusions, Zipline's technology can be an actual lifesaver.

For their part, the company's team in Rwanda handles the entire delivery process from start to finish. From a medical worker placing a blood order, to then locating the correct product in the distribution center, loading it and programming the flight path, Zipline keeps everything in-house. This streamlined approach has allowed the company to deliver roughly 25 percent of Rwanda's blood supply, which translates to some 7,000 bags of blood.

Will the FAA allow this practice in the U.S.?

With plans to set up additional operations in Tanzania, Zipline also has an eye on bringing their efforts back home to America. Current Federal Aviation Administration rules, however, are somewhat prohibitive to the company's progress.

Under the existing regulations, commercial drones must stay within the eyesight of their operators. They also cannot fly higher than 400 feet. In a medical emergency, these rules would be a huge hindrance, but there are some signs that things could change.

The Unmanned Aircraft System Integration Pilot Program, due to launch soon, will allow some companies to work with state and local governments to test new drone technologies. What is gleaned from these tests is expected to heavily influence the FAA's new drone laws. The FAA is also planning to approve five actual commercial drone use proposals in the near future, and Zipline is vying for one of those spots. Commercial drone laws, in the next few years especially, could be heading for a significant shakeup.

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