UPS will provide a grant of $ 800,000 plus logistical support through the UPS Foundation to a partnership including Gavi Vaccine Alliance, a group providing vaccines to impoverished countries, and Zipline for drone flights in Rwanda starting in August.
The drones will deliver blood and vaccines to half the transfusion centres in the country of 11 million people, making deliveries 20 times faster than by land.
The drone trial demonstrates the potential for the technology to be used for the delivery of consumer products by an unmanned aircraft.
US companies are keen to use drones to cut delivery times and costs, but the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) currently restricts drone operation.
FAA, which has adopted a step-by-step approach to drones, will soon release finalised rules for small drone use that will most likely limit their use to within the “visual line-of-sight” of an operator or observer, reported Reuters.
The hurdles to using drones to deliver packages to consumers include technology, communication, insurance and privacy.
“If you’re looking for an economically-efficient way to deliver packages, you’d be better off using a bicycle,” said Assistant Law Professor at the University of Washington, Ryan Calo, who is specialising in robotics.
Questions still remain about battery life and safety, especially after lithium-ion battery problems resulted in a fire on board a parked Boeing 787 in Boston in 2013.
Safe communication between drones and with airplanes in America’s busy airspace is years away. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration have been working on a drone traffic management system and will pass its research to the FAA in 2019 for further testing.
“You really do have to make sure the FAA is in the boat and we are really focused on that piece of it more than anything,” said Senior Vice President for Global Engineering at UPS, Mark Wallace.
Wallace says UPS will focus on projects like Rwanda and testing drones in remote US areas in the near-term.