These drones drop PPE and COVID-19 test samples to medical facilities using tiny parachutes — here’s how it works

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Zipline delivery drone. Zipline
  • North Carolina healthcare system Novant Health is using drones to deliver PPE.
  • The deliveries, using drones from Zipline, are the first long-range drone logistics flights approved by the FAA.
  • Zipline is also known for its drone deliveries in Ghana and Rwanda.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

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.

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Zipline delivery drone route. Zipline

Zipline drones operate out of an emergency drone fulfillment centre in Kannapolis, North Carolina.

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Zipline delivery drone. Novant Health

All drones take off and land at the fulfillment centre.

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Zipline delivery drone. Novant Health

The six foot long drones are autonomous, with an 11 foot wingspan.

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Zipline delivery drone. Zipline

Deliveries are dropped from the sky, where the drone drops to a safe height when it reaches the destination.

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Zipline delivery drone. Zipline

The box of PPE is attached to a small parachute at the designated drop off location.

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Zipline delivery. Zipline

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.

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Zipline delivery drone. Zipline

The Zipline drones can travel up to 80 miles per hour, and carry four pounds of cargo.

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Zipline delivery drone. Zipline

From the Zipline fulfillment centre, drones can cover an area of nearly 8,000 square miles.

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Zipline delivery drone. Novant Health

They can micro-target deliveries within that area, delivering up to two tons of medical supplies each week.

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Zipline delivery. Zipline

Zipline and Novant Health plan to continue and grow their partnership over the next two years.

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Zipline delivery. Zipline

Eventually, their goal is to rethink health logistics and enable contactless delivery to businesses, healthcare facilities, and even patients’ homes.

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Zipline delivery. Zipline

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.

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Zipline delivery. Zipline

Before starting this partnership with Novant Health in May, Zipline was already involved in anti-coronavirus efforts in Ghana and Rwanda.

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Zipline delivery. Zipline

Beginning on April 17, Zipline drones were used to transport COVID-19 test samples.

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Zipline delivery. Zipline

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.

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Zipline delivery. Zipline

Some flights were as long as 70 miles.

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Zipline delivery. Zipline

Zipline says these daily deliveries will continue as long as they are needed in Ghana’s COVID-19 response.

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Zipline delivery. Zipline

All samples are packaged according to WHO guidelines and disinfected upon arrival.

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Zipline delivery. Zipline

The drones have the ability to detect in-flight issues and return to the fulfillment centre if necessary.

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Zipline delivery. Zipline

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.

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Zipline delivery. Zipline

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.

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Zipline delivery. Zipline