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On May 22, before Memorial Day, a six-foot long, red-and-white drone took off from a field in Kannapolis, N.C., flew 15 miles west over suburban Charlotte to Novant Health’s Huntersville Medical Center, and dropped a box of protective masks in a designated spot next to the parking lot. The flight, about 30 minutes round-trip, marked the first U.S. delivery for Zipline Inc., a California drone startup that has been transporting medical supplies in Rwanda and Ghana since 2016. It is, Zipline says, the longest commercial drone delivery route in the country.
Zipline’s U.S. debut comes almost six months ahead of schedule. The company had planned to begin service in North Carolina in October, under an agreement signed at the beginning of this year with Novant Health, which runs 15 hospitals and nearly 700 clinics in the area. Zipline and Novant decided to accelerate their plans after the coronavirus outbreak. “It was very much a toe in the water sort of thing,” said Angela Yochem, chief digital and technology officer at Novant, “Then this crisis hit.”
Novant’s logistics center in Kannapolis happens to sit next to the campus of Stewart-Haas Racing, a NASCAR team co-owned by driver Tony Stewart and Gene Haas. The team, which has already used its trucks to deliver face masks for Novant, gave Zipline permission to build a launch hub on an empty plot next to its headquarters. It took about a week to get the distribution site up and running, said Zipline co-founder and CEO Keller Rinaudo. The hub now houses 10 drones, each capable of running dozens of trips per day up to a range of 100 miles round-trip. At full capacity, it can handle 30 drones.
Novant wanted to be prepared, said Yochem, in case a surge of COVID-19 cases began straining supply lines for protective equipment. “If we relied on the traditional distribution, you’re looking at a scenario in which you’re stockpiling at the endpoint,” said Yochem, “With drone delivery, you can have an ongoing delivery of PPE or medicines or other critical supplies on demand.”
The coronavirus outbreak has caused a surge of interest and investment in automated delivery for meals, groceries, medical supplies and other essentials, with autonomous car companies, delivery apps, and drone operators all touting the benefits of contact-less systems. “COVID-19 is messing with workforces and with logistics systems,” said Rinaudo, “When people are quarantined and staying at home, that’s a really good time to be using robots.”
The Federal Aviation Administration granted Novant emergency permission to start using Zipline’s drones for COVID-19 response. The agency’s rules for small unmanned aircraft, known as Part 107, normally prohibit flying beyond the sight of an operator. The FAA approved Novant for a Part 107 waiver that is good through October, or until all COVID-19 related travel restrictions have been lifted.
“This the first time the FAA has approved long-range drone delivery flights in America,” said Rinaudo. Zipline and Novant plan to continue working toward full certification for package delivery by drone, known as Part 135, as they had originally set out to do in January.
At the moment, Zipline provides masks and other protective equipment to Novant’s hospital in Huntersville and to a nearby doctors’ office. Orders can be placed online and arrive within about 15 minutes, shaving off about half the normal delivery time. The battery-powered drones launch from catapults and carry parachute boxes of up to four pounds. Upon return, they’re snagged from the air by drag wires. The Kannapolis hub can serve an area up to 8,000 square miles, potentially reaching dozens of Novant clinics. Zipline’s aim is to be able to deliver COVID-19 treatments or, eventually, a vaccine. Zipline and Novant are also working with the Federal Aviation Administration for approval to deliver medicine and supplies directly to patients.
Zipline’s drones, which have logged more than 1.8 million miles in Africa, fly themselves by a global navigation satellite system. Remote supervisors keep an eye on each trip. In Ghana and Rwanda, a single operator can supervise up to 30 drones simultaneously. For now, Zipline supervisors in North Carolina will oversee one drone at a time. To avoid other air traffic, the drones fly at altitudes below 500 feet at about 60 miles per hour, squawking as they go over radio transponders. “We fly very specific tubes,” said Rinaudo. “You can think of it like a subway in the sky.”
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