Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: Coronavirus: Business and technology in a pandemic

Autonomous air cargo company delivers COVID-19 vaccine

The Navajo Nation, hard hit by the pandemic, is getting some help from autonomous air freight.

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Autonomous air cargo company Xwing just announced that it successfully completed a delivery of COVID-19 vaccines in the US. It's a big milestone and a splashy headline for the company and for the burgeoning autonomous cargo sector. 

The FAA granted approval for the operation in November. The flights do have a pilot onboard. Xwing uses a human-operated software stack that seamlessly integrates with existing aircraft to enable regional pilotless flights. It's part of a growing effort to make flight more accessible and to reduce training burdens on pilots, who currently have to be trained specifically on every kind of plane they fly.

"The US has reached a huge milestone in developing the vaccines, but now the challenge remains in broadly distributing those doses across the country quickly and efficiently. At Xwing, we're honored to have the opportunity to be a part of this operation by using our cargo planes to deliver thousands of vaccines to some of the locations that need it most."

The delivery to Holbrook, AZ, is part of a larger nationwide logistics operation to bring Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccines to the hard-hit and largest Indian Reservation in the United States, the Navajo Nation. It's a tricky problem because Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine has a limited shelf-life. That makes express air cargo operations critical. 

Earlier this year, Xwing successfully completed non-commercial flight demonstrations of the first fully autonomous air cargo flight out.

The Navajo Nation has been devastated by the coronavirus pandemic as the region records some of the highest infection rates compared to other states.