California drone developer Zipline International Inc., which is known for distributing vaccines and blood supplies in Rwanda and Ghana, will now run flights for a North Carolina hospital in its fight against the Covid-19 pandemic.
San Francisco-based Zipline makes cargo planes with five-foot wingspans that cruise about 80 mph using battery-powered propellers. Each drone can carry a four-pound payload within a 50-mile radius, before dropping its parcel by parachute and automatically returning to base.
That system is now being planned for use North Carolina, since the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) granted a waiver to Charlotte-based Novant Health Inc. The operation provides contactless distribution of personal protective equipment (PPE) and critical medical supplies to Novant Health frontline medical teams in the Charlotte, North Carolina, metro area.
Novant Health, which operates 15 hospitals and nearly 700 locations in the southeastern United States, says that capability will help it adapt quickly to the evolving coronavirus pandemic, and could lead to innovative uses such as testing, drug trials, and vaccine distribution in the future. Over the next two years, the partnership plans to expand beyond emergency operations in the Charlotte area to regular commercial operations, subject to approval under FAA Part 135 rules, to serve health facilities and, ultimately, patients' homes across the state.
"Zipline has been hard at work helping other countries respond to the pandemic," Zipline CEO Keller Rinaudo said in a release. "And we're proud to partner with Novant Health, a true leader in health care innovation, 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."
Backed by financing from UPS Inc., Google Inc., and other venture capital funds, Zipline has focused its airborne logistics technology on the healthcare sector, where every delivery potentially saves a human life, but where doctors in developing countries often lack what they need to treat patients, Rinaudo said in a recent interview with this magazine.
The announcement follows a similar move last month by UPS itself, which teamed with the pharmacy chain CVS Health Corp. to deliver prescription medicines to a retirement community in Florida using airborne drones. Since early may, UPS has used Matternet’s M2 drone system to bring the medicines to The Villages, Florida, which is home to more than 135,000 residents.
Initially, the half-mile flights are delivering their goods to a location near the retirement community, then passing the parcels off to ground vehicles to reach each consumer’s door. UPS says the plan offers a fast delivery option for medicines that are time-sensitive, while supporting social-distancing efforts by allowing residents to avoid visiting a pharmacy. UPS is also conducting drone flight deliveries under the FAA’s Part 107 rules to sites at WakeMed’s hospital and campus in Raleigh, North Carolina, and at the University of California San Diego Health system.
Editor's note: This story was revised on May 28 to include information about UPS's drone delivery program.
True to our First in Flight NC roots: we’re excited to announce the launch of our historic approval to operate @zipline drones for our #COVID19 response. https://t.co/ghH7YP4HKb pic.twitter.com/HnPRD0i7aK— Novant Health (@NovantHealth) May 27, 2020