HATTON, N.D. – A drone swooped into the Zipline test site in a field near Hatton on a cold early March day. Sensing the winds weren’t optimal for a recovery, the craft aborted the approach and circled back around for another attempt.
South San Francisco-based Zipline, a medical supply drone delivery company, doesn’t consider that canceled recovery a failure. Instead, the company views it as an opportunity, one that allows it to gather as much information as possible to continue making improvements on its drones.
Zipline, founded in 2014, delivers medical supplies, including blood, pharmaceutical supplies and vaccines in the United States and around the world. “We’ve delivered over a million doses of vaccines,” said Liam O’Connor, Zipline's chief operating officer, noting that the company delivered its first doses of COVID-19 vaccines to Ghana in early March.
Flying the drones in the real-world winter conditions of wind, snow and cold is why Zipline set up a test site near Hatton, 40 miles southwest of Grand Forks. In addition to testing in a laboratory setting, in which drones are put in ultra-cold chambers and wind chambers, Zipline wanted to test outside in real-world conditions.
“We were looking around the country for a place where the weather was right,” O’Connor said. North Dakota’s capricious winter weather fits those requirements, he said.
“It is really perfect in terms of testing,” O’Connor said. A nine-day North Dakota cold spell in February, when the temperatures stayed below zero, was ideal.
“We really were looking for true, deep cold,” O’Connor said. “We’re flying as much as we can to gather the data, gather the hours.”
Meanwhile, Zipline also chose the site along North Dakota Highway 18 because of its proximity to the Northern Plains UAS Test Site in Grand Forks and the John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences at UND. Both provide sources of expertise for Zipline, and the UND aerospace program gives the company access to students and graduates trained to work in the drone industry.
Six Zipline employees work at the test site north of Hatton, where site setup began in mid-January and the first test flights were conducted in early February. During tests, autonomous drones – carrying boxes weighing a few pounds, similar to the weight of medical supplies – are launched, flown around the 200-yard perimeter site and recovered.
Four drones are on site, and about 15 more will be added. The drones fit together in parts that can be exchanged between them. They are stored in a heated tent on the test site, which also includes a launcher and recovery system. A tail hook on the drone catches it as it flies over a tension wire.
Testing the drones in wind, rain and snow – common March weather conditions in North Dakota – also will be valuable to the company. Besides using the information it gathers during testing to determine how the drones operate under adverse weather conditions, it shares its testing data with the Federal Aviation Administration, O’Connor said.
Zipline is part of BEYOND, a public-private partnership program with the Federal Aviation Administration that was implemented in October 2020. The BEYOND program is looking at the remaining challenges of unmanned aerial systems integration, including Beyond Visual Line of Sight operations, that are repeatable, scalable and economical, emphasizing infrastructure inspection, public operations and package delivery.
Zipline plans to remain at the test site until May and will return in October. The company will continue seasonal drone testing at the Hatton site in 2022.
There’s also potential for Zipline to have a permanent presence in North Dakota, he said.
“We’re hoping to be part of the North Dakota landscape for quite a while,” O’Connor said.