Zipline obstacle avoidance tech signals major leap for widespread drone deliveries

In the race to be the leader in drone delivery, Zipline just announced a major technological improvement that could set its drones above the rest. California-based drone delivery company Zipline this month announced a new Detection and Avoidance (DAA) system. And the Zipline obstacle avoidance tech could not only majorly set Zipline ahead of other competitors, but also generally make widespread drone delivery far more viable than it ever was before.

The Zipline obstacle avoidance tech is fairly unique, and it is very much unlike the visual sensor-based obstacle avoidance found on most other drones. In the Zipline version of obstacle avoidance, you’re looking at onboard acoustic-based technology, where the company has placed a series of small, lightweight acoustic microphones and onboard processors on its drones. The Zipline obstacle avoidance tech promises to make its drones capable of navigating airspace and providing 360-degree awareness with a range up to 2,000 meters.

“Our DAA system is the holy grail for drone technology,” Zipline co-founder Keenan Wyrobek said. “We’ve created a system that is agile enough to operate with the finest of margins, and can think for itself and adjust in real-time.”

Zipline obstacle avoidance tech
Photo courtesy of Zipline

How the Zipline obstacle avoidance works

This new DAA system has been in development for years, and is the result of hundreds of thousands of flight hours.

It’s designed to be able to monitor not just its static surroundings like trees and buildings, but also other aircraft in real-time — and adapt to changes in their flight path. In short, it means that drones should be able to safely fly in uncontrolled airspace, as opposed to the highly-planned flight routes in open spaces that we mostly see among drone deliveries so far to-date.

So how is it different than the DAA tech we’re used to? Most obstacle avoidance technology that you might be familiar with in follow-me drones such as the beloved, crash-proof Skydio 2 drone is vision based. That’s certainly not a bad thing for consumer drones, but it likely won’t work for scaling long-range drone operations (like carrying packages for miles) on small drones. Electromagnetic awareness is also combine.

Relative to the size of the drones, existing detection and avoidance technologies are actually quite bulky.

“Zipline’s acoustic-based system combines the lightweight, affordable hardware needed for autonomous drones with the precision mandated by regulators for complex airspace,” the company said in a statement.

Zipline obstacle avoidance tech
Photo courtesy of Zipline

Zipline receives FAA Part 135 Air Carrier Certification

Not only is the Zipline obstacle avoidance tech revolutionary, but Zipline has a rare form of government approvals that gives it an additional leg up. That’s because — also in June — Zipline received U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Part 135 air carrier certification to operate in the U.S.

That means Zipline is now authorized to complete the longest range on-demand commercial drone deliveries in the U.S., with operations covering the largest area and greatest distance of any uncrewed commercial aircraft delivery system in the country.

With its newfound power, Zipline will begin flying routes of up to 26 miles roundtrip, including through Class D airspace, over people and beyond visual line of sight.

Zipline obstacle avoidance tech
Photo courtesy of Zipline

What this means for the future of Zipline

At the moment, Zipline is considered to be the largest drone delivery operator in the world. In 2021, Zipline crossed the 200,000-delivery milestone, putting it — at the time — as the leader in drone deliveries, having conducted more than twice the amount of deliveries as Wing, the sister-company of Google. Now, halfway through 2022, the company says it has eclipsed 300,000 commercial flights, has covered more than 23 million autonomous miles, and that it currently conducts a delivery every four minutes, on average.

Zipline has been conducting commercial operations for more than five years in total. And while Zipline largely started operations of medical deliveries to rural parts of Africa, the company has been expanding into more complicated airspace, including a relatively recent U.S. expansion to deliver COVID-19 related supplies to North Carolina hospitals and other medical facilities. It also has partnerships with major retailers including Walmart. Later this year, Zipline plans to launch drone deliveries in Utah with its partner Intermountain Healthcare.

The combination of obstacle avoidance tech developments and FAA Part 135 Air Carrier Certification will certainly propel Zipline forward as a drone delivery leader, but it has competition. Also this month, drone delivery company Wingcopter announced a $42 million Series A funding round. With that comes hiring plans that could nearly double the size of the company. Wingcopter also holds a critical Airworthiness Criteria for its custom-designed Wingcopter 198 drone.

Zipline also has Wing to contend with. The Google-sister company made a splash in Texas when it brought drone delivery to the city of Frisco this past spring.

That said, it’s not clear how enthusiastic just everyone is about drone delivery. Amazon announced drone delivery would come to the rural California town of Lockeford, California — but it seems that Lockeford residents don’t actually want it. A story from The Washington Post indicates that some neighbors are at least entertaining the idea of shooting them down.

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