Delivery by autonomous UAV

August 16, 2023  - By

Many have heard about efforts by Amazon to use UAVs for home delivery of orders within hours. Unfortunately, Amazon’s UAV trials have yet to be transitioned to “production” across the United States. Its website states that UAV deliveries are only available in College Station, Texas, and Lockeford, California.

Walmart is also in a trial phase of getting its rapid UAV delivery system working; however, its same-day UAV delivery is only servicing customers in the Tampa, Orlando, Phoenix, and Dallas areas. Nevertheless, there are many other automated deliveries underway around the world for meals and product deliveries, especially in Asia.

One segment where UAV deliveries appear to have been successful for medical samples and medications, which are now being shipped regularly on time-sensitive routes by UAVs (and, of course, several trial deliveries of these items are still underway).

The EMED transport/courier service used extensively by the UK National Health Service took part in one of the most recent medical shipment trials — which recently wrapped up in UK — with more than 400 pathology samples being rapidly shipped by fixed-wing UAVs between two hospital sites.

Loading a UAV in a UK medical trial. (Image: ESA)

Loading a UAV in a UK medical trial. (Image: ESA)

The UAV used in the EMED trial was a tried and tested Swoop Aero Kookaburra III fixed-wing aircraft with a 3kg payload that flies at 330 ft in segregated airspace.

In the United States, OhioHealth aims to use a proven medical delivery system supplied by Zipline. Its plans for delivery UAVs include rapid shipments between Ohio medical facilities and prescription delivery to patients. By 2025, OhioHealth predicts that more than two million people in the Columbus area could be served by the Zipline delivery system.

OhioHealth plans to use Zipline’s Platform 2 delivery UAV — a fixed-wing carrier UAV with vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) capabilities able to autonomously hover and accurately lower a package-carrying “droid” into a tight delivery spot. The previous Zipline Platform 1 system drops packages by parachute, which requires a substantial area to receive deliveries. The “droid” has three directional fans that allow it to maneuver at the end of the tether to within six feet of the planned delivery point.

Over the last six years, Zipline has built up a whole fleet of Platform 1 aircraft and the complete infrastructure for its medical delivery operation in Rwanda.

In Rwanda, there was a need for different delivery methods to get medical supplies to hospitals, as communities are spread over large distances. Before bringing such a service to the United States, Zipline aimed to get a delivery service running, get experience, and de-bug and prove the system’s capabilities. Six years and half a million deliveries later, Zipline is now ready. For civil certification, the Federal Aviation Administration previously liked to see lots of evidence of established operational activity. Therefore, Zipline was fortunate to have six years of proven delivery activity in Rwanda when they looked to start up in the United States.

Platform 2 ‘droid’ containing a package is lowered on a tether from a hovering carrier drone. (Image: Zipline)

Platform 2 ‘droid’ containing a package is lowered on a tether from a hovering carrier drone. (Image: Zipline)

Zipline has also done everything needed to ensure the delivery process in Rwanda is as efficient as possible — from the order processing system, through packaging and loading into the UAV, a catapult launch system that accelerates the aircraft to climb-out speed, battery charging and exchange for each flight, autonomous navigation to the delivery point, parachute delivery at destination, autonomous return to base, and an automated capture system on arrival. As a result, it’s not unusual if a delivery can be dispatched within 90 seconds from receipt of an order.

The distances are large in Rwanda between where people are sick and where they can get help, and the necessary supplies may well be located elsewhere — at times, as much as 150 miles away. However, since Zipline deliveries became common, in-hospital maternal mortality rates have been reduced by 88% — quite an achievement. Each delivery that is dispatched really has the potential to save a life.

Now, Zipline has the potential to improve turn-round times for the health system in the United States. The company is ready to prove that the Platform 2 system makes very little noise because of specially designed propellers, that precise deliveries are possible, and it is even ready to take on regular parcel deliveries without being limited to only medical shipments.

Hopefully, some of the big retail organizations will be willing to watch, listen, trial and eventually bring the proven Zipline delivery system into their operations. There is much work to do to bring about regular UAV deliveries, but with a proven track record in Rwanda, the odds favor a successful outcome in the United States.

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About the Author: Tony Murfin

Tony Murfin is managing consultant for GNSS Aerospace LLC, Florida. Murfin provides business development consulting services to companies involved in GNSS products and markets, and writes for GPS World as the OEM Professional contributing editor. Previously, Murfin worked for NovAtel Inc. in Calgary, Canada, as vice president of Business Development; for CMC Electronics in Montreal, Canada, as business development manager, product manager, software manger and software engineer; for CAE in Montreal as simulation software engineer; and for BAe in Warton, UK, as senior avionics engineer. Murfin has a B.Sc. from the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology in the UK, and is a UK Chartered Engineer (CEng MIET).