In 1903, Wilbur and Orville Wright chose to test their heavier than air flying contraption at Kill Devil Hills, just outside of Kitty Hawk, NC. They chose this location because it was logistically the best option based on the lay of the land and its strong winds. The Wright Flyer’s first successful flight on December 17, 1903, lasted 12 seconds. The aircraft traveled 120ft with a top speed of 6.8mph. Since then, engineers around the world have been experimenting and perfecting the possibilities of aviation. In the United States, North Carolina has remained a favorite testing ground for up and coming aircraft, especially drones.
For some time now, the WakeMed hospital campuses located throughout Raleigh, NC has been using drones to transport medical supplies. In a partnership with UPS and Matternet drones, time sensitive medical samples are couriered between the hospital locations with drones. Blood and tissue samples, medications, and tests that need to be transported quickly are now arriving at their final destination in a matter of minutes. Before the drone program, these deliveries could sometimes take up to an hour depending on traffic conditions. The collaboration wasn’t something that happened overnight, it took months of trials before all of the WakeMed campuses were able to benefit from the drone delivery program.
Now, as the country struggles to overcome the difficulties imposed by the coronavirus, drone enabled deliveries have become even more important. One of the biggest challenges the US has faced in combating the spread of COVID-19 has been due to ineffective medical supply deliveries. The lack of protective gear for doctors, nurses, and all medical facility workers led to lofty consequences. Thankfully, personal protective equipment, PPEs, are now available. However, getting them to those who need them has still been difficult. Delivery companies have become so bogged down since so many people are now shopping online, that packages of PPEs are taking too long to get to essential workers who need a constant resupply of them.
Seeing how UPS and Matternet were able to coordinate with the FAA for the WakeMed drone delivery program, Huntersville Medical Center, about 3 hours away in Mecklenburg County, has just begun a drone delivery program of their own. Part of the Novant Health network, the Huntersville Medical Center (HMC) services the communities of Huntersville, University, and Lake Norman, suburbs of Charlotte, NC. With the help of the North Carolina Department of Transportation, HMC has partnered with Zipline to see that their employees have appropriate access to PPEs via drone delivery.
Zipline is no stranger to making medical deliveries with drones. In fact, they have one of the largest medical drone delivery programs in the world. In 2016, Zipline co-founders Keller Rinaudo, Keenan Wyrobek, and William Hetzler entered into a deal with the Rwandan government to begin distributing medical supplies to remote areas of the country. By April 2019, Zipline was making drone deliveries of vaccines, blood and tissue samples, medications, and test supplies to 2,500 health facilities throughout Rwanda. “Rural healthcare is a challenge in every country in the world including in the United States,” Rinaudo said. “You now see much bigger and wealthier countries like the U.S. actually using Rwanda as a role model.” When the coronavirus outbreak began, Zipline made it clear that they were ready and able to start assisting in medical deliveries in the United States, once the FAA granted them permission.
Earlier this month HMC and Zipline received a temporary waiver from the FAA to begin testing drone deliveries of PPEs. The drones will be able to fly over people and beyond visual line of sight. Not only will the drones be able to get supplies from Zipline’s distribution center to HMC in record time, but they will also enable zero contact deliveries, a key in fighting the spread of the virus. The drones, that look like mid sized RC planes, can carry up to 4lbs and have a 100 mile travel range. They are launched from a distribution center, glide to a programmed coordinate, then release a package before turning around to go back to the distribution center. The packages have a parachute attached to them that allows them to land softly on the ground.
The current waiver granted by the FAA will allow HMC and Zipline to proceed with drone deliveries through the end of October 2020, or until all restrictions related to the coronavirus have been lifted. Angela Yochem, Novant’s chief digital and technology officer, hopes that by then measures will be in place that will allow Novant to continue exploring options with drone deliveries. She said that her team had begun looking into a drone delivery program long before the pandemic occurred, and it is a conversation they will carry on with the goal of using drones on a broader scale throughout the Novant Health network.
Coronavirus cases are starting to decline. Proper PPEs are available and getting to the places they need to be. Using drones will ensure that this trend continues through efficient, contactless deliveries. Hopefully, we will see the development of a vaccine soon, one that can be rapidly distributed with the assistance of drones. With these new models in place, society will be better equipped in the event of future outbreaks as well. “The COVID-19 pandemic has tasked us with being even more nimble and innovative in how we solve for complex challenges,” Yochem said. “Fast-tracking our medical drone delivery capability is just one example of how we’re pioneering in an industry notoriously 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.”