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America's First Commercial Drones Could Deliver Medical Supplies

Drones will be saving lives before delivering pizza—now that the government has given the go-ahead.

America's First Commercial Drones Could Deliver Medical Supplies

Commercial drone services are now poised to become a reality in the United States. This week, the Federal Aviation Administration significantly relaxed restrictions on unmanned aerial vehicles, opening the way for what it says could be an $82 billion market employing 100,000 people.

Starting in August, operators will no longer have to get "333 exemptions" to fly drones (an onerous process) so long as they keep them in "visual line of sight." And, in some cases, even those rules will be waived, making long-distance drone flights possible as well.

That's good news for San Francisco-based Zipline International. Until now, it had been planning to work only in the developing world—for example, delivering medical supplies in Rwanda. But now it plans to set up shop in the U.S. too. With support from the Obama Administration, it plans to begin medical deliveries here within the next few months, probably in remote places like Indian reservations.

"The Administration is saying it wants to drive innovation on this space particularly where it's a matter of life and death," says Keller Rinaudo, Zipline’s cofounder. "We've decided to set up a Zipline system in the U.S. much sooner than we were otherwise expecting, because it's now possible."

Zipline's plane-like design differs from the standard quadcopter type and it's said to be able to go faster and longer as a result. It's also build with dependability in mind. For example, if a wing breaks off, the drone is still able to fly back to base.

Rinaudo argues that conditions in Rwanda and the rural U.S. aren't as different as you might think. Remote American clinics run short of important medical supplies and they're also dependent on timely deliveries in emergencies. "It's not just about reducing the cost. It's also about doing it 10 times as fast. It takes a long time to charter a flight or set up a truck to drive [supplies] to someplace," he says.

Blood or rare cancer-related products are the most likely cargo on the flights. Zipline is already talking with a large U.S. health logistics company that's interested in using its services, Rinaudo says.

The FAA's ruling could help get drones beyond the fantasy stage and show their practical benefits. Rinaudo says the industry's reputation has been harmed by the attention on consumer deliveries (which are far-off) as opposed to useful things they can do now.

"Big companies have focused on delivering a latte or a six-pack to someone on the beach, instead of the critical life-saving applications," he says.

"That's pretty far away and it's really not a compelling use-case. It leads us to debating whether drones are spying on us or whether they're going to crash into aircraft. It means people don't perceive the full value of this technology."

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