A police officer carries a drone-delivered package before giving it to a front line hospital worker in North Carolina.
True to its roots, North Carolina is once again “First in Flight.” On Wednesday, Novant Health, based in the state, launched America’s first emergency drone operation in partnership with Zipline — a drone delivery unicorn best known for its work in African countries like Ghana and Rwanda. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) granted Novant Health an emergency Part 107 waiver to begin operation, which is being launched as part of the North Carolina Department of Transportation’s (NCDOT’s) Unmanned Aircraft System Integration Pilot Program (IPP). The operation provides contactless distribution of personal protective equipment (PPE) and critical medical supplies to frontline medical teams in the Charlotte, North Carolina metro area.
The new operation marks the first ongoing long-range drone logistics flights approved by the FAA, as well as the first time ongoing drone logistics flights have been approved to operate in Class-D controlled airspace, where all air traffic is actively managed by the FAA. For Novant Health, which operates 15 hospitals and nearly 700 locations in the southeastern United States, the operation could prove to be a game-changer in uses such as testing, drug trials, and vaccine distribution, especially as the Covid-19 pandemic continues to unfold.
“Novant Health has long been at the forefront of leveraging technology to enhance how health care is delivered to our patients,” said Angela Yochem, executive vice president and chief digital and technology officer at Novant Health. “The Covid-19 pandemic has tasked us with being even more nimble and innovative in how we solve complex challenges. Fast-tracking our medical drone transport capability is just one example of how we’re pioneering in the health care industry, which is known for being resistant to change. We are very grateful to the FAA and North Carolina’s DOT for their help to expedite the process during this unprecedented time.”
A key distribution channel
Zipline, which has partnered with Novant Health, will provide drone flight services under an agreement with Novant Health, supported by additional agreements among Novant Health, Zipline, and NCDOT. The emergency drone fulfillment center, which is adjacent to the Novant Health Logistics Center in Kannapolis, North Carolina, will launch Zipline drones to distribute Novant Health’s critical medical products to its area hospitals.
“We’re likely in for a long-term fight against Covid-19,” said Zipline CEO Keller Rinaudo in a statement to the press. “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.”
Two initial routes have been approved by the FAA for the launch of operations. Service will begin with flights to Novant Health Huntersville Medical Center and expand in later phases. Flights to initial facilities will range in distance from 20 to 30 miles round trip. Prior to the launch of this operation, typical drone logistics flights in the U.S. ranged between 500 feet to a mile-and-a half in distance. Zipline’s drones have a round trip range of over 100 miles, making them capable of delivering medical supplies from the Novant Health Logistics Center to more than 30 additional Novant Health facilities upon approval of additional routes by the FAA.
The drones take off from and land at the emergency drone fulfillment center, requiring no additional infrastructure at the Novant Health facilities they serve. Deliveries are made from the sky, with the drone descending to a safe height above the ground and dropping off a box of medical products by parachute at a designated spot. The drones can carry close to four pounds of cargo, flying up to 80 miles an hour, even in high winds and rain.
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. “Hopefully, this project and ones like it can help ease the strain on our medical supply chains,” said North Carolina Secretary of Transportation Eric Boyette in a press release. “We’re living though an unprecedented situation, and we’re going to need innovative solutions like this to get us through it.”
Zipline has ranked twice to the CNBC Disruptor 50 list, most recently ranking No. 39 in 2019. The 2020 Disruptor 50 list will be revealed June 16.