A Bend delivery drone production company could play a critical role in the distribution of vaccines.
Depending on who you ask, the idea of unmanned delivery drones buzzing through the sky could inspire fascination. Or worry.
After a $50 million capital raise, Volansi, a Bay Area drone delivery company, has set up a factory in Bend. After opening its doors in November, flight testing is underway at the new facility, which will eventually transition into full-time production of unmanned aerial vehicles.
The company's move to Bend is a nod to Oregon’s reputation as a large player in the tech sector and to its ideal conditions for aircraft testing. While federal regulations still hamper the growth of drone delivery services, the capabilities of the company’s next-generation drones will have benefits to the health care industry. The new drones possess cold-storage capabilities, and are able to transport vaccinations for personal delivery.
A Volansi drone prototype. Credit: Volansi
Kristin Kiser, senior director of marketing at Volansi, says three factors contributed to the decision to build a new facility in Bend. First, weather conditions are ideal for year-round flight testing. Oregon experiences all four seasons, though none so severely that flight becomes impossible. Second, the state’s generous incentives and welcoming attitude toward tech companies. Third, Bend’s talent pool means qualified employees are easy to find.
“The state of Oregon has been very proactive in bringing new technology and technology sector jobs to the state,” says Kiser. “We looked around the country and Bend checked all the boxes.”
The drones that will be manufactured at the new facility are able to transport between 10 and 20 pounds of cargo up to 50 miles. Volansi drones are unique, however, due to their refrigeration system. The temperature control customization makes the aircrafts perfectly suited for the transportation of vaccines.
A Volansi drone ready for takeoff. Credit: Volansi
The technology, called “cold-chain delivery,” has given drone delivery an important role in health care. Cold-chain delivery could prove critical as a COVID-19 vaccination nears distribution. As global pandemics are expected to continue to increase, on-demand health care delivery options like drones may prove to be in high demand.
Additionally, drone delivery means a truncated supply line. Instead of going to a clinic or hospital and risking exposure to a virus, these drones could deliver vaccines and medicines directly to a customer’s door. While a health care worker may have to administer the vaccine, the drones mean lower risk of exposure. The drones can also be ordered from mobile devices.
“The hybrid flight system takes off and lands vertically with no infrastructure required on the consumer’s side. The drones can be accessed from phones and iPads, just like ordering an Uber.” says Kiser.
The drones only require an area the size of a parking space to land, and do not need special landing pads.
Despite the advantages offered by unmanned aircraft, drone delivery still faces an uphill battle in the court of public opinion. Many people are uncomfortable with drones buzzing above their heads and make their opinions known to legislators.
The Federal Aviation Administration has placed restrictions on unmanned aircraft, making it difficult for drones to deliver in large metropolitan areas. As regulations stand, drones are not allowed in airspace that may interfere with other aircraft such as helicopters.
While these regulations hinder the viability of delivery drone companies, there are signs the regulator is becoming more open to drone delivery.
Last week the organization published airworthiness criteria for the certification of drones as special class aircraft. These new criteria will enable larger, more complicated drones than previously allowed under the rules.
“People say to legislators, ‘There are going to be robots flying around, stealing my privacy and I’m going to shoot it out of the sky.’ Sometimes that slows down the process as lawmakers have to listen to those concerns, but I’m optimistic,” says Kiser.
“A lot of good progress is being made.”
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