The COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown have caused a serious disruption in the distribution of healthcare supplies. To combat this, Novant Health, a U.S. based healthcare provider has partnered with an on demand drone logistics service called Zipline to shuttle medical equipment between its medical centers in North Carolina.
Through these drone flights, Novant Health and Zipline seek to put in place a contactless delivery system. Initially, this will be used to carry medical supplies and personal protective equipment to Novant Health’s front-line workers. Eventually, they plan to use the system for COVID testing, drug trials, and even vaccine distribution. Starting from one location, they will be expanding the delivery service to all 30 centers.
“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 CEO Keller Rinaudo
New regulations for drone flights
While drone flights are not new, the Novant Health-Zipline operation is one of the first long-ranging flights to be approved by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) as part of the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT)’s Unmanned Aircraft System Integration Pilot Program (IPP). Ranging 20-30 miles, these flights will make it possible for Novant Health to deliver supplies to father locations. Before this, regulations allowed only a 1.5 mile drone flight.
How does it work?
Taking off from an emergency distribution centre, these battery-powered drones carry around four pounds of cargo in a box. They can travel up to 80 miles an hour to reach their destination, even in harsh weather conditions. Once there, they descend to a safe distance above the ground, drop the box using a parachute, and return.
This well-organized system is not new to Zipline. Launched in Rwanda, they carry out the delivery of products with a short shelf-life including blood, blood products, antivenom, and vaccines to remote health clinics. Since then, they have expanded operations to many low-income countries around the world, including Ghana.
Moreover, they started working with the U.S. Department of Defense in 2018, hoping to demonstrate the use of drone technology in medical care, and have begun operations in the U.S. through this partnership with Novant Health.