Australia

Drone company flying blood around Rwanda says Australia could be next

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Australia’s civil aviation regulator says a similar program would need permission to stretch the current rules but could get off the ground soon.

A drone company that inked a landmark deal with the government of Rwanda to deliver blood and medical supplies to the country’s regional hospitals is actively considering similar projects in the United States and Australia.

Zipline International claims its long-range drones have carried out 3,500 emergency deliveries over 18 months in Rwanda.

Blood deliveries that previously took three to five hours in a cooler bag can now be achieved in 15 to 30 minutes on average, the company claims.

Zipline’s head of global operations, Dan Czerwonka, says hospitals have gradually come to trust the deliveries and are no longer stockpiling blood, driving wastage through expiry down to “almost zero”.

The company has a formal partnership with the Rwandan government - which is positioning itself as a technology leader in Africa - and has fully integrated its route-mapping with the country’s civil aviation regulator.

Zipline boxes in Rwanda.
Zipline boxes in Rwanda.
Zipline International

“We’re actually technically the largest commercial air carrier in Rwanda by volume of flights,” Mr Czerwonka tells SBS News.

Mr Czerwonka will be in Brisbane on Thursday with dozens of startups, researchers and regulators for the World of Drones Congress.

The company has a pilot program lined up in the United States, and Mr Czerwonka says he has already had promising early talks with the New South Wales and Queensland governments.

“[Australia] has a lot of the same issues in terms of rural health that the developing world does,” he says.

Would Australia allow it?

Australia’s own drone rules have been largely set by the Civil Aviation and Safety Authority, which is responsible for regulating both commercial and recreational drone pilots.

A Senate inquiry recently recommended legal changes that would force drone owners to get a licence to fly devices weighing more than 250 grams, instead of the current two-kilogram cut-off.

Zipline’s blood-delivery drones fly along programmed routes using artificial intelligence and cover long distances, which would currently fall foul of CASA’s requirement that pilots maintain a line of sight with their drones at all times.

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But Jonathan Aleck, a policy officer at CASA, told SBS News a similar system could get approved in Australia. He said the regulator was keen to “carve out” spaces for new drone technologies where it could be satisfied on safety grounds.

“That kind of activity could occur here under appropriate authorisations and approvals,” he said.

“There’s nothing in our regulations that unequivocally prohibit that kind of thing from happening.”

Mr Aleck said CASA had taken the approach of issuing exemptions and permits on a case-by-case basis, so technological progress could advance “at pace” without putting people or property at risk of collisions.

Google’s parent company Alphabet is already trialling drone deliveries in the suburbs of Canberra with the regulator’s approval.

“If we attempted to introduce a comprehensive, explicit set of rules to cover particular kinds of activity in this area, no sooner than the ink was on the page ... technology would change and we’d have to go back and revisit it,” Mr Aleck said.

“The question isn’t so much making major regulatory change, but exercising our powers to allow a departure from what would otherwise be a regulatory constraint to permit certain things to happen.

“We’re issuing those [exemptions] on a daily basis,” he said.

The Senate inquiry heard submissions from dozens of companies with drone ambitions in Australia, ranging from medical applications to pizza deliveries.

Mr Aleck said it was not a role for CASA, but the parliament would ultimately need to decide how to weigh risk against potential benefit in each case.

“Judgements do need to be made about what kind of risk and interference is society prepared to accept for delivering pizzas, as opposed to delivering medical supplies and blood,” he said.

The Senate report did not close the door to changes around line-of-sight rules in the future, urging CASA to “engage with stakeholders” on “emerging trends”.

Mr Czerwonka said the company did extensive testing and had multiple “redundancies” to allow emergency landings if drones dropped off the radar. He said he was optimistic about the regulatory environment in Australia and hoped to hold meetings in Brisbane.

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