‘A Lot Like Uber’: UPS To Test Drones For Deliveries In Africa

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Written by Dana Sanchez

United Parcel Service, the world’s largest package delivery company, has partnered with two other companies to test drones for delivering blood transfusions and vaccines in remote parts of Rwanda.

If all goes well, ordering drone delivery could work a lot like ordering an Uber, one of the partners said.

Through its UPS Foundation, UPS has committed $800,000 to the project with Zipline, a California robotics company; and Gavi, a Switzerland-based group that works to bring vaccines to children in poor countries, CourierJournal reported.

Starting later this year, the Rwandan government plans to start using Zipline drones to deliver blood to 21 transfusing facilities in Western Rwanda, UPS said.

Zipline drones can make up to 150 deliveries per day. Testing them in Rwanda makes sense because of its uncrowded airspace, according to the San Francisco Bay-area Zipline company.

UPS’s drone plan in Rwanda are seen as an aggressive move in logistics — Amazon and other competitors also are developing new tools to cut costs for shipping and package delivery, KHOU.com reported.

“It is a totally different way of delivering vaccines to remote communities and we are extremely interested to learn if UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) can provide a safe, effective way to make vaccines available for some of the hardest-to-reach children,” said Seth Berkley, CEO of Gavi, in the announcement.

How to order a drone delivery

Zipline CEO Keller Rinaudo described how the drone delivery service will work at a recent press conference, Quartz reported. Hospital workers will send the delivery company a text message, and once the order is confirmed, it texts back with an estimated delivery time. When the drone is approaching, the worker receives another text to come outside to pick up their package. “A lot like Uber,” Rinuado said, except that Zipline works with any mobile phone, not just smartphones.

Rinaudo said the company chose to use fixed-wing drones rather than helicopter-shaped
drones like Amazon is testing because they can fly faster and longer, according to Quartz.

Fixed-wing drones can fly in most weather conditions, and they offload their
cargo while still in flight using a parachute connected to the package, so they don’t need to land, Rinaudo said.

If the pilot program is successful in Rwanda, Zipline and UPS will consider expanding into other countries, Quartz reported. Zipline conducts much of its drone technology research in the San Francisco Bay area, working with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration.

When the company has enough data from programs in other countries, it wants to present it to the FAA and try it in the US. “But only after many, many flights with no incidents,” Quartz reported. There are no guarantees Zipline or UPS will be able to bring drone delivery to the U.S. and if it does, it will face competition from companies like Flirtey and Amazon.

“Still, one day we may one day be able to press a few buttons on our phones, and have anything we need brought to us within 30 minutes,” Quartz reported.