Instant logistics and drone delivery specialist Zipline has entered a partnership with US space agency NASA to examine the future operation of UAVs and advanced air mobility (AAM) craft and services, particularly those using multiple autonomous vehicles at once.
NASA said it had officialized the tie-up through a Space Agreement Act to investigate and plan for the ways aerial activity involving delivery drones and AAM services like air taxis may function in coming years and decades. Central to that forward-looking inquiry will be m:N – the mode NASA is preparing to enable small groups of people (m) to manage larger fleets of autonomous craft (N).
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The partnership will entail direct exchanges between the agency and Zipline, with the company also joining the n:M working group of experts from business, government agencies, and academics assisting NASA on the project.
“These collaborations are quite important,” said Kelley Hashemi, technical lead for autonomous systems at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley. “It’s critical for NASA to gather the community’s input in order to achieve meaningful progress towards this future vision of US aviation.”
Zipline’s drone delivery activity of medical supplies and retail goods in the US, Africa, Japan, and beyond have been built using de facto n:M operation, and is expected to offer valuable insight to NASA’s quest to determine how fleets of autonomous UAVs and AAM aircraft can be effectively managed in future.
In exchange for aiding the agency with its experience and insight from its instant logistics work, Zipline will be able to dig into NASA’s tools and research as it plans expansion of its aerial operations in the US.
As a member of NASA’s n:M working group, meanwhile, Zipline will also contribute to the collective effort to overcome technical, regulatory, safety assurance, and community acceptance challenges that can limit the scaling of existing aerial services like drone deliveries, and risk doing the same to future activities like AAM air taxis.
“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.”
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Zipline operates medical drone deliveries in Rwanda, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Kenya, and other African nations, and similar services in North Carolina, Washington state, and Japan. It also provides aerial transport of Walmart orders to clients in Arkansas. All told, the company has made over 280,000 deliveries using autonomously flying drones, covering some 20 million miles.