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Drones

Special delivery: Zipline, UPS partner to carry medical supplies by drone in Rwanda

The service, paid for by the Rwandan government, will serve as a testing ground for drone delivery.

Josh Miller/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, later, rabies vaccines to remote Rwandan health clinics. A small paperboard box filled with the life-saving medical supplies fits into the belly of the drone, along with a parachute. Flying long distances over frequently washed-out roads, the drones will get help to those in need faster than the current delivery methods of motorcycles and trucks.

Zipline, based south of San Francisco, will have muscle behind its diminutive drones. It has partnered with the UPS Foundation, which is the shipping giant's charitable wing, and the Gavi Vaccine Alliance, which helps distribute vaccines in Rwanda and elsewhere.

The Rwandan government will pay for each delivery Zipline makes. The arrangement is a unique way to test drone shipping, a much-hyped service that no company in the US has yet been able to deliver on.

Amazon, Walmart and Google have been developing their ability to deliver by drone, 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. The situation is 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, parachutists and commercial flights for drones to dodge. There's also less bureaucracy.

"In reality, they are able to move a little faster," Rinaudo said Thursday at a press event at Zipline's headquarters. 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 compare to ordering a pizza. It even takes just 30 minutes for blood to arrive. The delivery of rabies vaccine will start sometime in the future, Rinaudo said.

The Zipline drone has two fixed wings, looking more like a model airplane than the insect-like 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 above.

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 intact.

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.

From the moment the plane takes off, everything is automated. The plane is full of sensors that send flight information back to the ground to be logged and interpreted by Zipline engineers. That data will be invaluable to the company as it works to build its credibility as a drone delivery company.

With UPS involved, it's easy to imagine what the shipping giant has in mind for the future. Asked what UPS believes it will get from its involvement, Martinez said the company's foundation always gains valuable information when it works on humanitarian and disaster 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."

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