We are closer than ever to making drones safe for our skies

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It won’t be long before drones become part of daily life. They’re inspecting buildings, and delivering packages and blood samples all over the world.

Just yesterday (April 24), Zipline, a California-based drone company, launched the largest vaccine drone delivery network in the world—in Ghana. It will use drones to provide roughly 150 medications, vaccines, and blood products to 2,000 health facilities throughout the country, 24 hours a day.

But in the US, where there are more planes flying in the sky at any one time than anywhere else in the world, it’s more complicated. Before these flying robots start delivering our packages on a large scale, we have to make sure they’re safe enough to fly in dense metropolitan areas.

To find the best way for drones to integrate into the national airspace, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) launched a program in 2018 to test flying drones in a range of situations and environments across the country.  One of the companies involved in the pilot program is UPS, which has partnered with another Californian startup, the drone company Matternet, to test a medical drone-delivery service in in North Carolina. It’s using autonomous drones to transport blood samples across WakeMed, a hospital campus in Raleigh. For North Carolina, delivering blood by drone is both cheaper and more efficient than methods used elsewhere. Deliveries by road couriers can take far longer than the three minutes on average it takes a drone. Deliveries to the campus currently take anywhere from 30 minutes to a few hours, depending on where they’re coming from. 

Matternet’s drones have been used for thousands of flights in Switzerland, which has more active drone commercial operations than anywhere else in the world. The country has created more than 2,000 jobs from nearly 100 startups,  largely because of the favorable regulatory conditions Switzerland has built. This summer, Switzerland plans to launch U-Space, the world’s first platform that will allow drones to communicate with air traffic controllers. (The FAA is working with NASA on something similar.) Ideally, this will allow drones and planes to safely fly in the same airspace.

Watch the video above to learn more about how drones are being used throughout the world and how long it will take until they are safe enough to fly alongside airplanes and busy cities.

Quartz News is a weekly video series bringing you in-depth reporting from around the world. Each episode investigates one story, breaking down the often unseen economic and technological forces shaping our future.

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