A startup company developing technologies to enable pilotless flight for small aircraft has delivered a shipment of Pfizer Inc.’s (NYSE: PFE) COVID-19 vaccine to an Indian reservation in Arizona. Tech geeks, pump the brakes: This flight was manned.
The shipment demonstrates how the new coronavirus vaccines are beginning to spread out across the country beyond large metropolitan areas and how the big express carriers responsible for transporting them are relying on subcontractors to supplement their delivery networks.
FedEx Express and UPS are not identifying which suppliers they are using for the vaccine program, but companies that have acknowledged their participation so far include specialized carrier Boyle Transportation, XPO Logistics (NYSE: XPO), American Airlines (NASDQ: AAL), Delta Air Lines (NYSE: DAL) and United Airlines (NASDQ: UAL)
Add Xwing to the mix.
The San Francisco-based technology company announced Tuesday that it recently flew a single-engine Cessna Grand Caravan with a box containing 975 doses of the Pfizer vaccine from Phoenix to the Navajo Nation in Holbrook.
CEO and founder Marc Piette declined to say which company hired Xwing. But UPS is delivering vaccines to Indian reservations, spokesman Matthew O’Connor said.
Getting vaccines to the area is a challenge because of the inadequate road infrastructure and even paved runways. The delivery is desperately needed because the Navajo nation is experiencing a severe surge of the coronavirus that has forced leaders to implement a three-week lockdown.
Many medical experts predicted that remote regions would probably be first served by Moderna Inc.’s (NASDQ: MRNA) COVID-19 vaccine, which was authorized Friday, because it’s easier to handle than the earlier Pfizer version. The Moderna product only requires long-term storage at minus 20 degrees Celsius versus minus 70 C, but remains stable at standard refrigerator temperatures for 30 days. Less strict requirements make it easier to transport and to store at doctors’ offices and pharmacies that don’t have expensive deep freezers.
Piette said Xwing owns four Cessnas.
Xwing has developed a unique software stack that integrates with flight control systems to turn existing aircraft into autonomous flying vehicles, with the ability to navigate, take off and land without human involvement.
In August, Xwing completed a noncommercial autonomous flight to the Navajo Nation with an 800-pound load of personal protective equipment and school supplies under an experimental authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration.
The company is going through a lengthy process to get its retrofit approved by the FAA. Commercial flights will continue to be piloted until the FAA grants approval for unmanned flights.