NASA isn’t conducting drone deliveries, so why is it so interested in Zipline?

NASA — you know the space agency that’s studying Mars, that just completed the next steps of the Artemis 1 moon mission, and that wowed pretty much everyone recently with photos from its Hubble Space Telescope — is highly interested in one particular drone company famous for making drone deliveries.

No, NASA isn’t interested in getting into the drone delivery business, but it is interested in learning from it.

NASA this week announced a partnership with California-based Zipline. Zipline is building a future involving delivery drones — and NASA is interested in being involved in the management of autonomous vehicles. Delivery drones means tons of autonomous vehicles flying through the air. And since Zipline is currently the largest drone delivery company out there, there’s perhaps no better company to partner with in the understanding of operational needs to implement a way to manage many drones in the air at once.

The partnership is what’s called a Space Act Agreement. As part of the agreement, NASA will work closely with Zipline to help develop tools and techniques under what it calls its (m:N) project.

What is the NASA (m:N) project?

(m:N) is short for Multi-Vehicle Control, and it essentially means that there wold be an operational system where a few actual people (defined as m) are able to manage many, many autonomous vehicles (defined as N). (m:N) came to the public eye in March 2021, when NASA researched teamed up with industry leaders including Zipline as well as other big drone users like BNSF Railway for its first ever working group that month (which since meets quarterly).

NASA has always had a hand in drones, particularly when it comes to shaping drone traffic management. Lately, it (m:N) group has been working on addressing barriers to widespread drone adoption including technical, regulatory, safety assurance, and community acceptance. These days, NASA has grown to develop an entire “Revolutionary Aviation Mobility Sub-Project.”

Clearly, NASA’s focus isn’t just on space, but also on disaster-oriented and public-good operations, that will improve our environment, economy, and social lives.

Zipline already uses m:N operations to transport medical supplies and consumer goods via drone all around the world — as close to home as Northwest Arkansas, as well as to far-off countries such as Japan, Ghana, and Rwanda.

NASA’s partnership with Zipline follows under its broader Transformational Tools and Technologies project, which aims to position NASA as a leader in research and cross-cutting tools.

What the NASA partnership means for Zipline

Through the partnership, NASA will take Zipline’s documented experiences and data to apply to finding solutions for broadly implementing m:N operations in the U.S. airspace. Zipline will also continue engaging in NASA’s m:N working group.

“These collaborations are quite important,” said Kelley Hashemi, the technical lead for autonomous systems at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California. “It’s critical for NASA to gather the community’s input in order to achieve meaningful progress towards this future vision of U.S. aviation.”

The partnership is a big win for Zipline, which has already been rapidly growing and is generally considered to be the largest drone delivery operator in the world. Now, Zipline will have enormous leverage to access NASA’s tools and research. In turn, that could give it a giant leg up in expanding its fleet operations in the United States. Currently Zipline has a healthy footprint in the U.S. (it has partnerships with major retailers including Walmart, and also has plans to plans to launch drone deliveries in Utah with its partner Intermountain Healthcare). But its biggest footprint at the moment is in developing countries, as it got its start delivering blood to rural parts of developing countries in Africa.

Within the U.S., Zipline competes with other drone companies including Flirtey and Google-sister company Wing. Wing recently made a splash in Texas when it brought drone delivery to the city of Frisco this past spring.

NASA isn’t solely working with Zipline when it comes to autonomous vehicle and drone-focused partners. NASA’s Revolutionary Aviation Mobility Sub-Project also involves eternal partners include a couple companies that are working on building an autonomous eVTOL air taxi, including both Wisk and Joby Aviation. NASA is also working on drone-related projects with the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and Georgia Tech’s Center for Urban and Regional Air Mobility.

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