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Saratoga Springs, N.Y., May Be Test for Drone Delivery

Big Rock Technologies, a finalist in the NATO Innovation COVID Challenge, received approval from Saratoga Springs, N.Y., allowing the city to be the testing grounds for contactless delivery of COVID tests and medicine.

Digital rendering of a delivery drone in flight.
Shutterstock/Corona Borealis Studio
(TNS) — Medicines delivered by drone might be on its way to Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

Big Rock Technologies, a finalist in the NATO Innovation COVID Challenge, received a thumbs up from City Council on Tuesday night, allowing the city to be the testing grounds for contactless delivery of COVID tests and medicine.

Big Rock Director of Operations  Adam Luaces  said the local drone deliveries would come at no cost to the city, but would advance the technology by creating a larger medical supply drone-delivery chain.

To get there, however, the Saratoga Springs company needs to win a $1.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation. Thus, city buy-in, demonstrated with a letter of intent from the council, is required.

If funded, the trial with the drones would not start until January 2022.

"We would love to be part of your city. That is all we can be asking for," Luaces told the City Council. "It could help us build a robust innovation company here in this area where technology can be built upon. It will be extremely helpful to our company as we grow."

Luaces said the city location is ideal as it is close to the eastern border of the drone corridor that was established last year at Griffiss International Airport in Rome, where drones are being tested for eventual commercial use and where the FFA is developing an air traffic control system. He also said the medical deliveries would likely go to first responders and those living in rural and isolated areas.

The city Commissioner of Public Safety  Robin Dalton , who brought the idea to the council, said she's excited about the prospects of drone delivery in Saratoga Springs.

"What I find so exciting about this is it's a private, public collaboration that is spot on here," Dalton said. "It also brings great tech jobs to our city, which we are needing. ... We could be pioneers. I thought this was an incredible opportunity."

Big Rock Technologies is an offshoot of Big Rock Mountain Inc, its website indicates, which was established in 2013. The company offers products, services and project management to industries such as mining, construction, recycling and farming. The drone is listed as it's only technology.

Drone technology is advancing everywhere, including at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which is using them its website notes "to monitor remote locations and improve situational awareness."

Experimentation with delivery, however, is already underway in Buffalo where Walmart has teamed up with an aerial drone company, DroneUp, and Quest Diagnostics. The retail giant said it will use drones to deliver self-administered COVID-19 tests to people who live around Buffalo. The New York location is Walmart's second. The company also started drone delivery in September in North Las Vegas. The Buffalo drones, however, can fly no farther than a mile from the store.

Big Rock's drones are expected to have a 50-mile radius. In addition to medicines and medical supplies, the drones could also deliver food and carry as much as 100 pounds. The drone would also be equipped with refrigeration units and can stay in the air three to five hours.

Those receiving deliveries would require a receptacle, which in the case of Big Rock will be manufactured by its partner, Varqari. The Chicago-based company builds delivery boxes where the items would be dropped securely by the drone.

Big Rock is also working with a consortium from the drone aviation industry — including regional communications partners MIDTEL and FirstLight. They will build the drones to provide two-way transportation for items.

Luaces said the project has been supported by the Saratoga Economic Development Corporation and Schwartz Heslin Group, a management consulting and investment banking firm in Albany. It would unfold in three phases.

Phase I would focus on feasibility, confirming range and accuracy, lifting capabilities, structural balance, weather's impact and communications. Phase II would focus on research and development for safe and effective monitoring procurement and delivery. Phase III would involve bringing the technology to the commercial market and manufacturing innovations in Saratoga County.

"This will be a three-year project from innovation to market," Luaces said.

Ultimately, Luaces said drone drops will reduce the cost and risk of traveling to healthcare facilities. And if successful in Saratoga Springs, he said Big Rock would qualify for other grants, like Smart City Initiatives grants, and state tax breaks.

(c)2020 the Times Union (Albany, N.Y.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.