San Francisco company Zipline is using drones in new ways in healthcare to face the threat of coronavirus. Through a partnership with Novant Health, a non-profit healthcare system in North Carolina, Zipline has used long-range drones to deliver PPE to providers.
Zipline got a special FAA waiver for these trips, which are the first of their kind in the US. As more routes are approved, the company has plans to expand deliveries to other clinics and even to patients’ homes. It also carried out similar work in Ghana and Rwanda, using drones for contactless transportation of COVID-19 test samples from rural areas to cities with labs to get results in a timely fashion.
Drones have been used for medical deliveries in the US before. In May, UPS began delivering CVS prescriptions throughout one retirement community in Florida, but these were short deliveries of only about half a mile to a central location in the community. On the other hand, Zipline is carrying out the first long-range deliveries, right to the locations where they are needed.
Here’s how it works.
So far, the FAA has approved two routes, totaling between 20 and 30 miles round trip.
Zipline drones operate out of an emergency drone fulfillment centre in Kannapolis, North Carolina.
All drones take off and land at the fulfillment centre.
The six foot long drones are autonomous, with an 11 foot wingspan.
Deliveries are dropped from the sky, where the drone drops to a safe height when it reaches the destination.
The box of PPE is attached to a small parachute at the designated drop off location.
The drones have a range of 100 miles round trip, meaning they can deliver PPE to 30 facilities in the area as routes are approved by the FAA.
The Zipline drones can travel up to 80 miles per hour, and carry four pounds of cargo.
From the Zipline fulfillment centre, drones can cover an area of nearly 8,000 square miles.
They can micro-target deliveries within that area, delivering up to two tons of medical supplies each week.
Zipline and Novant Health plan to continue and grow their partnership over the next two years.
Eventually, their goal is to rethink health logistics and enable contactless delivery to businesses, healthcare facilities, and even patients’ homes.
North Caroline Secretary of Transportation Eric Boyette said that he hopes drone delivery can help the overburdened supply chain. “We’re living through an unprecedented situation, and we’re going to need innovative solutions like this to get us through it,” he said.
Before starting this partnership with Novant Health in May, Zipline was already involved in anti-coronavirus efforts in Ghana and Rwanda.
Beginning on April 17, Zipline drones were used to transport COVID-19 test samples.
Drones were used to collect test samples from 1,000 rural locations in Ghana to transport them to labs in the country’s two largest cities.
Some flights were as long as 70 miles.
Zipline says these daily deliveries will continue as long as they are needed in Ghana’s COVID-19 response.
All samples are packaged according to WHO guidelines and disinfected upon arrival.
The drones have the ability to detect in-flight issues and return to the fulfillment centre if necessary.
In case of an emergency where a return isn’t possible, each drone has a parachute to make an emergency landing by slowly gliding to the ground.
Drone delivery has improved COVID-19 testing in Ghana, reducing wait time from hours or days to just a single hour, and cutting the chances of damaged samples due to broken cold chain storage.