A Zipline delivery drone is fired from its launcher during a flight demonstration in California

Drones to transport life-saving medication in Rwanda

Drones are being trialled to transport life-saving blood supplies and vaccines in Rwanda by a start-up, backed by international delivery company UPS.

The drone trial also demonstrates the potential for the technology to be used for the delivery of consumer products by unmanned aircraft which is being developed by companies such as Amazon.

UPS will provide a grant of $800,000 (£554,000) plus logistical support through the UPS Foundation to a partnership including Gavi, a group providing vaccines to poor countries, and robotics company Zipline International for drone flights in Rwanda starting in August.

The drones will deliver blood and vaccines to half the transfusion centres in the country of 11 million people, making deliveries 20 times faster than by land.

"Tens of thousands of hours of flight logged in an environment where it's much easier" to operate will help make package delivery a reality in the United States, Zipline chief executive Keller Rinaudo told reporters at a presentation late last week.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which has adopted a step-by-step approach to drones, will soon release finalized rules for small drone use that will most likely limit their use to within the ‘visual line-of-sight’ of an operator or observer.

The body already introduced a mandatory registry system for owners and operators of unmanned aerial vehicles in the USA at the tail-end of last year.

The hurdles to using drones to deliver packages to consumers include technology, communication, insurance and privacy.

"If you're looking for an economically-efficient way to deliver packages, you'd be better off using a bicycle," said Ryan Calo, an assistant law professor at the University of Washington specializing in robotics.

Questions also remain about battery life and safety, especially after lithium-ion battery problems resulted in a fire on board a parked Boeing 787 in Boston in 2013.

Safe communication between drones and with airplanes in America's busy airspace is years away. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has been working on a drone traffic management system and will pass its research to the FAA in 2019 for further testing.

"You really do have to make sure the FAA is in the boat and we are really focused on that piece of it more than anything," said Mark Wallace, UPS' senior vice president for global engineering.

UPS will focus on projects like Rwanda and testing drones in remote US areas in the near-term, he added.

Walmart announced plans to test drones for package delivery last year, most likely starting with short hops in rural areas

"It has to happen a step at a time, which will teach us and will provide insights to the FAA and the public on 'this is how it could work,’" spokesman Dan Toporek said.

Google also entered the fray last year when it announced its ‘Project Wing’ drone delivery service which it wants to launch to customers in 2017.

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