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COVID-19 could accelerate drone deliveries in the US and Europe

The US and Europe develop a lot of technology. But they aren’t always the first to enjoy it. Case in point: San Francisco-based drone delivery company Zipline. Back in 2016, the company began transporting blood supplies with fixed-wing drones to rural medical clinics around Rwanda. Zipline has since made thousands of medical deliveries in Rwanda and has also expanded to Ghana in West Africa. Only now is the company bringing drone delivery to the US.

As Fast Company reports, Zipline already had plans to start medical deliveries in the United States later this year. But with the COVID-19 pandemic, the company is working with the FAA to accelerate its launch. Zipline might deliver supplies specifically for COVID-19 efforts, such as masks and gloves to first responders. It could also deliver medicine and other supplies to patients who can’t safely get to a doctor or pharmacy in this era of social distancing.

Ireland about to launch

Across the Atlantic, Ireland is about to get its own medical drone delivery service. Next week, Manna Aero will begin trials in the central Irish town of Moneygall (home of Barack Obama’s ancestors). If the trial succeeds, the offering could spread throughout Ireland. Some in the press have called Moneygall a “world’s first” in drone deliveries, ignoring years of service in Africa.

There is a difference, though. Zipline’s African deliveries have been to central locations. Manna Aero will deliver directly to individual homes. Its focus is on the elderly and other vulnerable populations at greatest risk of harm from COVID-19. These deliveries spare them a trip to the pharmacy where they increase their risk of infection.

If the drone deliveries work as planned, they will start with the drone hovering about 30 feet over the recipient’s front door. The recipient uses a smartphone app to acknowledge that the drone has arrived and they are in position to receive the delivery. Then the drone lowers the package to the ground, without ever having to land. Each drone can carry up to nine pounds of cargo, at up to 50 miles per hour, to deliveries in a four-mile radius. Manna Aero claims that a single drone can make 100 deliveries per day.

Could food be next?

Manna does have plans beyond medical deliveries. Named for the bread that fell from the sky in Bible tales, the company’s main focus has been on food deliveries. The company was working towards food delivery trials when the COVID-19 pandemic caused those plans to be suspended.

But perhaps authorities will reconsider. Food delivery has become crucial in the era of social distancing, with restaurants closed to diners and most people housebound. And delivery workers put themselves at significant risk in this infectious time. So moving to an automated, drone-based system has the appeal of further reducing risky contact between individuals.



Avatar for Sean Captain Sean Captain

Sean Captain is a Bay Area technology, science, and policy journalist. Follow him on Twitter @SeanCaptain.