Remote aerial delivery via drone is back in the news this week. Amazon, which is preparing to roll out its long-delayed Prime Air service in two small rural towns before the end of the year, has just announced the development of a second drone prototype designed for rapid package deliveries to consumers in Boston and other major cities.
Known as MK-30, the drone is smaller and more agile than its Prime Air drones, with special safety features to reduce the risk of mid-air collisions as well as propeller cuffs to limit drone noise over crowded residential areas. The MK-30 is hexagonal in shape and weighs just 80 pounds. It also has the capacity to fly in light rain. The payload is fairly limited – just 5 pounds and small enough to fit into a suitcase-sized compartment – but the drone can fly for 30 minutes without recharging, about 50% longer than Amazon’s Prime Air vehicles.
Amazon staged a public demonstration of the MK-30 at a special event near Boston last week. The company is promising to have the aircraft ready for commercial use by early 2024. But given Amazon’s track record and the possible safety risks, a lot more field testing will likely be required before the MK3o is finally approved by the FAA.
Amazon’s flagship Prime Air service, which has faced obstacles from the beginning, continues to lag behind competitors like Walmart’s Drone Up, which is already operational and may soon expand to 34 sites in six states. In addition, the Silicon Valley-based firm Zipline is about to implement a new drone medical supply delivery service in Salt Lake City on the heels of its successful pilot of a similar service in rural North Carolina. Zipline has already established a solid reputation in this niche thanks to years of delivering emergency medical supplies, including vaccines and blood plasma, to remote villages in Rwanda and other impoverished African nations.
Meanwhile, an Israeli start-up Gadfin, has just secured an exclusive five-year partnership agreement with Sarel, the country’s biggest medical purchasing and logistics company, to establish the first aerial drone grid to deliver emergency medical supplies to Israeli hospitals within a radius of 200 kilometers. Gadfin’s hydrogen-powered drone, known as “Spirit-One,” can deliver payloads of up to 11 pounds in an eight-gallon cargo compartment. It flies at 100 kilometers per hour and can withstand strong winds and rainy weather. It also features folding wings that allow the craft to land in narrow places. Loading and unloading of packages is fully automated, the company claims.
Like most drone delivery companies, Gadfin has ambitious plans for its service that will require further legal and regulatory approval. Its $5 million contract with Sarel envisions its 18 Spirit One aircraft making 60 hospital deliveries a day, or 21,000 deliveries a year, within the next three years. However, both the Israeli health Ministry and the Israeli Air Force still need to sign off on the plan after more real world testing is completed.
“This partnership with Gadfin, utilizing its breakthrough technology, will allow Sarel to be the first medical logistics company in the world to allow [for the delivery of] nationwide, on-demand, immediate lifesaving equipment and supply, regardless of traffic, while reducing inventory and waste due to expired medical supplies,” Sarel CEO Avi Buskila said this week.
Other major U.S. companies, including UPS and DHL, and startups like Flytrex and Wingcopter, have also announced plans to expand their fledgling drone delivery services pending FAA approval. Uber has been conducting drone test flights in San Diego, California, as part of a federal program to determine the potential impact of commercial drone flights in low-altitude airspace. Other participants include FedEx and Alphabet, a spin-off of Google. In May, Uber Eats launched its first fast-food drone delivery demonstration projects in Los Angeles, in partnership with the driverless vehicle technology company Motional and the autonomous sidewalk delivery firm Serve Robotics.