Drone Filled Skies
You’d be surprised, but drones have been pretty popular since the late 1800s, with Austria sending bomb-filled unmanned balloons to attack Venice. Since then, we see a development of the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) and simultaneously, the unmanned aerial combat vehicle (UCAV) in several states throughout the world. The reason for this was primarily combat, and a large scale deployment of drones was carried out by the United States during the Vietnam War.
Drones, as a result, have always had a bloody history.
Today, the average drone thankfully has a more peaceful connotation – albeit being intrusive, with it being used for surveillance primarily. Photography, landscape surveys, agriculture and delivery based purposes for drones arrive on the scene much later, in an economy that can pretty much commercialize anything.
Drones have many advantages: the primary ones cited are exploration in and access to areas that are too inhospitable or dangerous for humans to tread into physically. They have the advantage of speed and efficiency, hardly needing any roads to travel. Over that, the commercial drone is also becoming cheap and affordable – making its myriad uses available to the general populace.
Drone technology, in its commercial stage hasn’t been embraced by every country throughout the world. The primary reason is safety, with the United States being a particularly reticent contender.
Its airspace is pretty complex, being occupied with military drones and other such aircraft for them to sanction commercial drone usage freely. Some compromises need to be made, obviously. That being said, the drone market is dominated largely by the United States and Israel.
Amazon Prime Air, Google and DJI are all competitors in the commercial drone market, vying for revenues from the USA and China for maximising profit in the incoming wave of logistical delivery. Almost all of them face strict regulations and have subjected their drones to intensive testing in spaces abroad, trying to get the FAA on their side.
The FAA’s cautious approach isn’t likely to relax anytime soon with all the complications, but a US-based start-up has circumvented this by taking their services into more receptive environments.
Meet Zipline, a drone company with a different angle to the business.
Zipline: Humanitarian Drone Tech
Zipline is a company with what seems to be a single-minded focus: providing healthcare remotely, drone-style. As the United States is not particularly a conflict ridden, bereft-of-roads area where the ideal use for drones would be commercial merchandise in record time, Zipline have taken their business straight to Rwanda.
Africa has had an inconsistent approach to drone technology. Kenya banned commercial drones in January 2015, fearing military terror-based use of the technology. Ghana implements a strict licensing and registration policy with harsh punishments for the offenders.
Nigeria has raised the licensing price steeply to discourage such activity, and South Africa, while allowing private use of low-key drones, requires tedious processing for commercial use.
Rwanda, on the other hand, seems to be very receptive to this tech as they possess the need of the hour, choosing the best solution at hand.
Zipline was founded more than 5 years ago, but has now taken this riveting turn. Keller Rinaudo, founder at Zipline, said that the idea originated in Tanzania. He met a researcher there who’d compiled a database of patients and set up a mobile text-based system where personnel could send in requests in case they wanted blood or plasma.
Poor road conditions, the weather, power outages and other factors did not guarantee successful deliveries in Tanzania, and Rinaudo proposed the use of drone technology to remedy this in Rwanda.
The way it works is simple. Medical personnel in Rwanda can request for blood or plasma from their smart-phones by text, and will receive a drone shipment in 30 minutes. Zipline also uses a unique drone model that is launched by slingshot instead of the ones at Amazon. These are better for rough weather as compared to quadcopter-models. It also seems to be more economical, and is also not large enough to be threatening or mistaken for a combat-based drone.
The ‘Zips’, as the drone is called, is quite effective. It is equipped with a paper parachute and can carry 3-5 pounds without difficulty. Moreover, it can be navigated with a tablet app, its trajectory monitored, and will ultimately return after delivery without needing a landing strip.
It’s cost-effective too: Rinaudo says it potentially costs the same as a motorbike making the delivery, and will be more efficient in every possible way, not needing roads and avoiding extraneous factors. It takes a Zip 30 minutes to fly up to 45 miles – an impressive, speedy delivery. Rinaudo and his team have a versatile experience in their ranks – personnel hail from Boeing, SpaceX and Google.
For now, Zipline will make between 50 and 150 deliveries per day to 21 clinics in the western half of the country, significantly increasing humanitarian help in the region.
Hurdles For a Better Tomorrow
Support from the Rwandan authorities and other interested parties has been overwhelming. The design company Foster + Partners won the rights to designing a drone port in Kigali, the capital as the area is particularly prone to inclement weather and bad road conditions, signalling its need.
This also led to yet other regulations as drones colliding with other aircraft can post a significant risk – while them slipping into warzones that are monitored is a strict no-no – this is more of a risk conflict ridden countries that need help at the same time.
UPS, the international delivery service has backed Zipline up by helping them ship all of Zipline’s equipment to Rwanda. They have also invested $1.1 million in a project to investigate how such drone delivery could be expanded to other medicines, and other countries, tying up with vaccine delivery companies like Gavi.
Other investments are also strategic. Sequoia Capital’s Alfred Lin, Google Ventures (GV), Jerry Yang (yahoo’s co-founder) and Stanford University have invested in Zipline too, raising a reported figure of $18 million.
Rwanda represents a test case for the commercial drone industry. If this service succeeds (it’s already making leaps since its stealth launch on October 14th) then it will strengthen the drone’s case for being used in densely populated, other areas. The FAA is to take particular notice, with so many companies vying for drone tech to ease costs and make operations more efficient.
With Zipline, we shall definitely see a foundation shaking, definitive step toward the adoption of drones – if they can perform miracles of healthcare in conflict ridden areas, surely their connotation can be changed in the eyes of regulatory agencies throughout the world.
The drone is here to stay, and we watch its development with bated breath for the economics of the future.