California company parachutes packages into rural Alaska communities

A Dash package is dropped over an Alaska community in July, 2021. (Courtesy of Dash systems)

A California-based technology company successfully dropped supplies from airplanes into remote towns and government facilities in rural Alaska this summer.

It was the first time a private company delivered supplies that way.

A promotional video for Dash Systems showed how it works: A woman sat on the floor of an airplane, high in the sky. The door of the aircraft opened. She grabbed a box that appeared to have a wide propeller attached to one side, and she slid the cargo to the edge of the plane’s door and pushed the box out. The blades caught the wind, steering the box. Then, when it got close to the ground, a parachute erupted from the package. It floated gently to the ground.

Dash Systems describes it as a “land the package, not the plane” approach, and it aims to make next-day delivery available in remote areas.

For more than a week in July, the company tested the technology at four drop sites over 7,000 miles in rural Alaska.

Beth Klein has worked to get supplies to rural Alaskan communities for years. She said she hopes Dash can be an alternative to existing delivery systems.

“I think that if there was a different opportunity for delivery methods, I would say that would be amazing,” Klein said.

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Klein works for RurAL CAP, an organization that supports rural Alaskans. She said the high cost and complexity of existing delivery systems can prevent rural communities from getting the supplies they need. When pilots stopped traveling to villages during the COVID-19 pandemic, people had to go without important supplies. Fresh food often spoils before it arrives. Immunizations expire before they can be delivered.

“I think the timeliness of the potential for these deliveries would be a huge impact for our communities,” Klein said.

Dash partnered with the University of Alaska Center for Innovation, Commercialization, and Entrepreneurship and the Office of Naval Research to explore whether remote supply drops would be effective in Alaska.

Dash founder and CEO Joe Ifill started the company with hard-to-reach areas like rural Alaska in mind. Ifill’s family is from Barbados, where hurricanes regularly disrupt shipping. He saw a solution to that problem when he started working with technology for remotely dropping bombs. He wondered about other applications.

“Could we reuse this technology for a peaceful purpose, you know, help people?” he said.

Ifill said the expedition proved the technology is a good fit for Alaska.

“We flew over 7000 miles in one week, delivered to multiple locations,” he said. “We didn’t get to pick the weather, we didn’t get to pick the drop zone. But we always found one that was safe and would work.”

Rural Alaskans shouldn’t expect their packages to start falling from the sky any time soon. Dash is seeking contracts with government agencies and other business partners to continue developing their systems. They hope to increase the weight they can deliver in each pod so that eventually they can drop full pallets. For now, this experiment shows that dropping supplies from an airplane into remote locations in Alaska is possible.

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