Europe’s largest employer adds Zipline to its drone delivery list

How’s this for an indicator that drone delivery is huge? The National Health Service, which is the largest employer in Europe, has turned to Zipline drones to help ship critical medical supplies in North East England.

Zipline announced in December 2023 that it would be starting up operations in the United Kingdom via a partnership with the NHS, which is one of the largest public health systems in the world and Europe’s largest employer. Come sometime in fall 2024, it’ll begin conducting deliveries in Northumberland (that’s a county in North East England, bordering Scotland) with its Platform 1 system, which it had launched back in 2023.

With the Zipline-provided drone delivery system, NHS says it expects to see reduced medical care costs and canceled procedures by being able to provide on-demand access to medical equipment.

The news is fairly interesting given that the NHS is the largest employer in Europe, with one in every 25 adults in England working for the NHS. What’s more, the service is set to create even more local jobs across robotics and aviation.

As part of the project, Zipline is partnering with another UK-based healthcare logistics company called Apian. Apian was co-founded by a team of former NHS doctors and has built a healthcare-focused aviation platform that provides a fully automated, on-demand delivery system.

How will the Zipline drone deliveries for NHS work?

As for how it’ll specifically work, Zipline will build a hub for its operations near the Northumbria Specialist Emergency Care Hospital in Cramlington, Northumberland. That’ll allow Zipline to centralize the inventory of frequently-ordered products such as prescription medicines, wound care products and joint replacement implants. The NHS will then place orders through Apian’s system, and Zipline will fulfill them.

From there, they’ll be in better proximity to health facilities, which for now are set to be:

  • Hexham General Hospital
  • Wansbeck General Hospital
  • Haltwhistle War Memorial Hospital
  • Various regional health facilities

Zipline’s drones (which it calls Zips) can travel up to 130 miles roundtrip in almost any weather condition. Once the drones approach the delivery location, they release packages with parachutes that float down to a hospital’s outdoor area. Zipline also sys its drones have redundant safety systems and are supervised by trained aviation personnel who can track a Zip’s flight and intervene if necessary. 

Unlike many other drone delivery companies such as Flirtey and Flytrex that primarily focus on delivering food products, Zipline’s roots are in medical drone deliveries. The company started in largely developing countries delivering critically-needed medical supplies like blood. After mastering efforts in developing countries, primarily in Africa, Zipline brought its operations to the U.S., where it’s used by companies like Cleveland Clinic, Pfizer, and Walmart.

In fact, Zipline claims it has flown more than 60 million commercial miles to date and delivered millions of medical products worldwide, including more than 13 million vaccine doses. Zipline was considered the largest drone delivery company of 2023.

Zipline is no stranger to medical drone deliveries, though neither are Apian nor the NHS. Back in 2023, Wing (the drone delivery company affiliated with Google) announced it would provide service in South Dublin in tandem with Apian to deliver pharmacy items, laboratory samples, and medical devices and supplies.

But that was contained to Ireland, and this latest set of news applies to a new region. And that’s set to solidify the United Kingdom as a drone powerhouse, a title it’s already been able to claim even before this news came out. For example, the UK was the site of the world’s first permanent postal drone delivery service, a European drone superhighway and it’s seen major developments in the ways drones can be detected.

Graphic courtesy of Drone Industry Insights

What is Apian?

For its part, Apian already has a wealth of experience with drones. In October 2021, Apian’s own drones conducted the world’s first chemotherapy drone flight. The next summer, Apian drones completed the UK’s first prescription medicine delivery. And by the next spring, Apian conducted the UK’s first beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) blood pack delivery.

With these new operations announced last month, Zipline, Apian and the NHS say they will be able to serve nearly three dozen health facilities across the region, reducing the health system’s reliance on expensive last-minute logistics to move products between facilities when needed. 

“I’ve seen first hand the impact that running out of supplies can have on patient health outcomes,” said Dr. Christopher Law, Medical Director and Co-Founder of Apian. “Healthcare should benefit from on-demand delivery, much like consumers now do in their personal lives. Delivering critical products with drones, where and when they’re most needed, will improve supply chain efficiency and give doctors, nurses and clinicians more time to focus on the most important thing — their patients.”

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