Drone delivery company Zipline has been a leader in medical-related drone deliveries. Since the company launched in 2011, they’ve delivered medical supplies via drone to developing countries — starting in Rwanda in 2016, and expanding to other countries including Tanzania, Ghana, India and the Philippines.
But in the wake of coronavirus, the Silicon Valley-based company is turning more of their attention to making drone deliveries on home turf in the U.S.
In a partnership with North Carolina-based non-profit healthcare system Novant Health, Zipline expands by carrying out America’s first emergency drone logistics operation by a hospital for its pandemic response.
“Fast-tracking our medical drone transport capability is just one example of how we’re pioneering in the health care industry, which is known for being resistant to change,” said Angela Yochem, executive vice president and chief digital and technology officer at Novant Health. “The COVID-19 pandemic has tasked us with being even more nimble and innovative in how we solve complex challenges.”
Drones will shuttle personal protective equipment and critical medical supplies to Novant Health frontline medical teams in the Charlotte, North Carolina, metro area in a method that allows for contactless distribution.
The flights are being done in tandem with the the North Carolina Department of Transportation’s (NCDOT’s) as part of the FAA’s broader Unmanned Aircraft System (IPP).
How Zipline and Novant’s PPE drone deliveries will work
The journey of PPE and other emergency supplies begins at an emergency drone fulfillment center, located next to the Novant Health Logistics Center in Kannapolis, North Carolina.
Zipline drones will takeoff from there, flying to nearby hospitals. Initially, the FAA has approved two routes to Novant Health Huntersville Medical Center in flights that total 20 to 30 miles round trip. That’s well beyond the length of drone logistics flights carried out by many other drone delivery tests, which usually don’t exceed more than a mile and a half (remember Google’s Chipotle burrito deliveries over a hill?).
Novant said more routes could be added in the future. The drones are capable of carrying close to four pounds of cargo, flying up to 80 miles an hour, even in high winds and rain.
As is the standard with Zipline deliveries, items are dropped with a parachute (the drones don’t land, outside of returning back to Zipline launch centers) so no additional landing infrastructure is needed.
The drones will fly in Class-D controlled airspace, which is actively managed by the FAA. Zipline has a Part 107 waiver to carry out those flights.
North Carolina has been on a tear as far as drone innovation goes since being selected for the FAA’s drone pilot program. Elsewhere in the state, Flytrex is developing food deliveries via drone, and UPS is transporting medical equipment around WakeMed’s Raleigh campus via drone.
If the Zipline tests go well, it could set a precedent for drones supporting medical deliveries elsewhere in the U.S.
“Zipline has been hard at work helping other countries respond to the pandemic,” said Zipline CEO Keller Rinaudo. “And we’re proud to …begin helping in the United States as well. We’re likely in for a long-term fight against COVID-19. Using contactless drone logistics will be an important tool in that effort. The work underway here in North Carolina will provide the rest of the country with a blueprint for how to build the most resilient and responsive health care system possible.”
Zipline and Novant said that even after coronavirus-related emergencies slow down, they expect to expand beyond emergency operations in the Charlotte area to regular commercial operations where drones might fly between health facilities as well as patients’ homes.