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Intelligent Machines

Drones Set to Deliver Medicine to Remote Parts of the U.S.

The White House has asked whether Zipline’s drones, pioneered in Rwanda, could fly much-needed drugs and blood to Americans.

A company called Zipline hopes to start using drones to deliver medicine and blood to three U.S. states.

Zipline announced in April that it was to begin using a fleet of drones to airdrop supplies to medical centers in remote parts of Rwanda. Today, however, the company will announce that it plans to perform deliveries in the U.S. states of Maryland, Nevada, and Washington, according to the Verge.

Zipline’s aircraft—which the company refers to as Zips—feature twin electric motors, an almost eight-foot wingspan, and can fly at speeds of up to 60 mph. Health workers request supplies to be delivered by the unmanned planes via text message. The vehicles then use GPS to navigate to the site, dropping supplies beneath a parachute.

Using drones for delivery isn’t a new idea—just ask Amazon. But while regulators have given commercial delivery via unmanned aircraft a hard time in the U.S., it’s perhaps unsurprising that Zipline found it a little easier to make a case to the Rwandan government that it should be allowed to use them to deliver drugs.

The demonstration of the technology, however, appears to have caught the eye of U.S. authorities. Keller Rinaudo, Zipline's founder and CEO, says that the startup was approached by the White House after it announced the project in Africa, in the hope that the same technique could be used in rural parts of the U.S.—including Smith Island in Maryland and some Native American reservations.

Still, that doesn’t mean that Zipline can go right ahead and start sending out supplies. In June, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration released a new set of rules permitting some drones to fly without special permission. That won’t apply to Zipline, though, as the rules clearly state that drones must remain within line of sight of the operator. Instead, the startup will have to apply to the FAA for a waiver.

Other companies will no doubt be watching closely to see if permission is granted. Seemingly bored with waiting for U.S. approval, Amazon recently announced plans to test its own delivery drones in the U.K. If Zipline is given the go-ahead, the FAA may set a precedent that others seek to leverage.

(Read more: The Verge, “Why Rwanda Is Going to Get the World’s First Network of Delivery Drones,” “New FAA Rules Have Commercial Drones Primed for Launch,” “U.K. Signs a Deal with Amazon to Test Delivery Drones,” “Sorry, Shoppers: Delivery Drones Might Not Fly for a While”)

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