The U.S. drone delivery company Zipline is getting ready to begin commercial operations in Israel next year. The company has begun the regulatory process and is in talks with potential customers.

Zipline hopes to begin its pilot program in Israel early next year, delivering blood and medicine to hospitals in the north and south of the country. While the company has drawn up detailed plans for entering the local market, there’s no guarantee that the pilot will develop into a commercial launch of the service.
Founded in 2014, Zipline has raised around $230 million to date and has a valuation of more than $1 billion. It’s considered the most prominent player in the field: The company has operated commercial drone delivery services since 2016 and has carried out more than 70,000 deliveries.

The company operates distribution centers in Ghana, Rwanda and the United States and is preparing to begin operations in India. In Ghana, Zipline has delivered vaccines for yellow fever, and in Rwanda it has made tens of thousands of blood deliveries. In September the company announced a trial with Walmart to deliver medical supplies to customers’ homes in Arkansas, and in North Carolina Zipline has partnered with a healthcare company to air-drop medical supplies to hospitals in the state.

Zipline’s interest in the Israeli market began over a year ago. In August the company established a local branch, Fly Zipline Israel. Leading the local initiative are Israelis Asaad Joubran and Yaniv Gelnik, business development leads at Zipline International for the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia (Joubran) and for Africa and Europe (Gelnik).

First flights 

Zipline’s fixed-wing drones can deliver payloads of up to 2 kilograms to any location within 80 kilometers (over 50 miles) of the launch site within 40 minutes. When the drone reaches its target, it releases the package with a small parachute that lets it float to its destination. The drones are capable of flying in rainy or windy conditions, and to adjust the point of release in accordance with the weather so that the payload reaches the prearranged target. Zipline plans to hire flight operators, medical logistics experts, pharmacists and aviation technicians in Israel.

The drones can carry and deliver fragile materials and products that must be kept at a certain temperature, including blood, certain medications and sensitive medical equipment. Such items are usually located in facilities in central Israel, such as the national blood bank in Sheba Medical Center, Tel Hashomer, east of Tel Aviv or in specialized laboratories. Hospitals outside of Greater Tel Aviv usually have to arrange for special deliveries of these items or to maintain surplus supplies that sometimes end up being discarded. Hospitals hope that just-in-time drone delivery of these sensitive items can save them money.

As reported by Haaretz earlier this year, Zipline was one of eight companies to win a call for proposals issued by the government-owned Israel Urban Air Mobility Naama Initiative, established as a framework to regulate, test and operate commercial drone networks in Israeli cities. Naama is a joint project of the Israel Innovation Authority, the Civil Aviation Authority of Israel, the government-owned Ayalon Highways Company, the Transportation Ministry and the Fuel Choices and Smart Mobility Initiative, a joint effort of 10 government ministries that is headed by the Prime Minister’s Office.

Now Zipline’s big plans for Israel are seeing the light of day: The company seeks to establish a distribution center in central Israel, from which its drones carrying blood or medicines would be dispatched to hospitals in northern Israel. Zipline is holding talks with hospitals in Tiberias, Nahariya and Safed, and hopes to begin test flights early next year. It is also negotiating with the country’s health services providers and drug distributors.

Zipline is expected to bring in a small number of delivery drones for the test flights, with the goal of eventually creating a fleet of 30 drones. The company is in the initial stages of registering with the Civil Aviation Authority. It will apply for formal authorization to operate test flights, starting with flights in which the operator maintains direct eye contact with the drone. The hope is to obtain approval for test flights beyond the range of direct eye contact by March or April 2021.

For Zipline, Israel is a small market, but the company hopes that its official launch here will facilitate its entry to the European market in the future.

A major bar to Zipline’s entry into Israel is economic. The company is hesitant to spend the money needed to create a drone network before it has locked down customers, and health care providers are hesitant to sign contracts before seeing a full demonstration of the technology. To get over this hump, Zipline wants economic support from the government that would help defray the cost of the infrastructure for the pilot, estimated at a few million shekels.

Zipline and Naama applied jointly to the Israel Innovation Authority’s pilot program for testing and demonstrating drone technologies, established to support Israeli companies in the industry. The winning companies are eligible for repayable grants covering 20%-50% of their research and development costs for the pilot program.

In addition to registering Fly Zipline Israel, the company is developing intellectual property in Israel, in the form of communication technology for transporting medical products. The Innovation Authority will have to decide whether to give funding to the U.S.-based company in order to accelerate its introduction to Israel, in the hope that it will spur the local drone delivery industry while meeting crucial delivery needs of remote hospitals. Decisions are expected within a few weeks.

In other Israeli drone delivery news, Naama has rolled out pilot programs in which drones developed by Israeli companies transport coronavirus treatments and test kits within a 5-10 kilometer radius. BWR and Flytrex were chosen for test flights at the Dorot Geriatric Medical Center in Netanya, Sha’ar Menashe Mental Health Center outside Hadera and, soon, at Hillel Yaffeh Medical Center, also in Hadera. Simplex was chosen recently to air-drop packages to hospitals in Nahariya, Safed and Tiberias.

Top Photo: A Zipline delivery drone releases its payload midair during a flight demonstration at an undisclosed location in the San Francisco Bay Area, California, U.S., May 5, 2016. Credit: REUTERS/Stephen Lam

Source: Haaretz

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