NASA is partnering with the drone operator Zipline as part of its plan to help shape the future of advanced air mobility (AAM) in the U.S.
The space agency wants to harness Zipline’s experience with autonomous drone deliveries to “pursue a future vision of U.S. aviation that includes delivery drones and air taxis,” the agency said in statement in early August. Zipline is a logistics company based in San Francisco that designs, manufactures, and operates delivery drones to distribute medical supplies and other goods, particularly to people in remote areas with limited access to retailers and healthcare facilities.
In its own efforts to bring advanced air mobility to the U.S., NASA has been researching tools and techniques to enable what the agency calls “m:N” operations, which refers to the ratio of ground-based human operators (m) responsible for controlling multiple uncrewed aerial vehicles (N). Through its new partnership with Zipline, NASA will explore ways to have pilots operating multiple aircraft simultaneously in U.S. airspace. Meanwhile,it has agreed to provide Zipline with tools and research that the company can use to expand its operations in the U.S.
“The Zipline partnership is in support of NASA’s effort—in collaboration with the aviation community—to further new multi-vehicle operational paradigms that can enable an increasingly autonomous and scalable future aviation system,” Kelley Hashemi, the technical lead for autonomous systems at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California, told FutureFlight. “This work addresses the workforce constraint problem and business case for many applications of interest to both NASA and industry, including package delivery with drones, air taxi passenger transport, and emergency response operations.”
Zipline has also participated in NASA’s community-supported m:N working group, a collaboration of government, industry, and academic professionals who are building an approval roadmap for m:N operations in the U.S. “The AAM community, Zipline included, stands to benefit not only from the working group’s deliverables but also the community coordination it provides,” Hashemi told FutureFlight.
“Other NASA activities that support realization of highly autonomous flight may be of interest to members of industry like Zipline,” Hashemi added. “Some particularly relevant items include our human-autonomy teaming simulations, generic AAM vehicle models and associated toolbox of contingency management functions, and dataset collections for use in development of perception capabilities.”
Zipline has been conducting drone deliveries since 2016, when it began distributing blood to healthcare facilities in Rwanda. In addition to its two centers in Rwanda, Zipline now operates distribution centers in Ghana and Japan, where it uses drones to deliver medical supplies and pharmaceutical products, including vaccines and personal protective equipment. The company also recently started a trial service with Walmart in Pea Ridge, Arkansas, delivering select health and wellness items to customers within a range of 50 miles (80 kilometers).
On June 21, Zipline announced that it had received FAA Part 135 air carrier certification to grow its operations in the U.S., the first Part 135 certification issued under the FAA’s Beyond program, which is intended to enable the safe integration of future uncrewed aircraft systems.
“Public-private cooperation is essential to expanding drone delivery and unlocking its benefits for more people,” said Conor French, general counsel of Zipline. “This partnership is an important step in that direction. We’re excited to work with NASA to accelerate growth in drone delivery, both in the U.S. and abroad.”