Zipline expands coronavirus drone deliver

Zipline blasts government’s approach to drone safety as “myopic”

Most experts agree that drone industry growth has progressed fairly slowly — for better or for worse — largely out of fear that moving too quickly could jeopardize drone safety.

The Federal Aviation Administration likely won’t disagree with that first statement (and it’s not necessarily without good reason); the FAA prides itself on its strong safety culture, and the U.S. airspace is largely considered the safest in the world.

But Zipline, which has been an international leader in drone delivery, is tussling with how far is too far when it comes to drone restrictions in the name of safety.

“There’s a myopia, where people are focused on the safety of the people on the ground, but they’re not focused on the safety of taking other cars off the road,” said Conor French, General Counsel at drone delivery company Zipline, during a panel on drone delivery at the Commercial UAV Expo virtual conference in September.

A Zipline employee prepares a delivery drone.

In the U.S., delivery is largely held back by regulations made in the name of drone safety. It’s difficult to fly drones in scenarios such as over crowds, behind visual line of sight or at night, presumably because it’s more dangerous than the alternative of simply not conducting that drone flight. Why risk a drone delivering a vaccine over a crowd of people when there’s a risk that the drone could crash on that crowd and hurt someone? (Meanwhile, a car could have delivered that vaccine.)

In fact, the Department of Transportation pegs an actual dollar figure — $9.6 million, to be exact — to how much a life is worth, based on its own calculations. It’s called the Value of a Statistical Life, and the last valuation was done in 2016. The DoT uses the number to calculate the cost that individuals would be willing to bear for improvements in safety (or reductions in risks) to reduce the expected number of fatalities by one. Thus, if building a new bike lane would cost $10 million, but would mean that an estimated five fewer bikers’ lives are lost, then that project would theoretically be green lit.

“The DoT pegs $9.6 million to a life lost, but there’s not a commensurate metric to a life saved,” he said.

A drone could deliver a vaccine and save a life. Or it could do a job that a car might do, taking that car off the road and reducing the risk of an automobile accident.

French said that the drone industry is being somewhat ignored when it comes to how many lives drones can potentially save. And French’s company, Zipline, is in the business of saving lives: Zipline delivers emergency medical supplies primarily in developing countries where poor roads make it tough for ambulances to drive, or where lack of roads means no access to remote villages over bodies of water. Zipline also more recently has begun delivering medical supplies in the U.S. in the midst of coronavirus.

French argues that U.S. laws preventing his company (and others like it) from carrying out such flights means fewer lives are saved than what potentially could have been saved. He said other countries don’t see drones with the fear that American regulators do.

“In Rwanda, people affectionately refer to drones as ‘sky ambulances,'” he said.

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