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Drone delivery comes to the US, thanks to a push from the pandemic

U.S. startup Zipline has been granted approval for long-distance autonomous drone deliveries in North Carolina. It could be the beginning of something big.

Zipline's package-carrying drone

Zipline's package-carrying drone will soon be bringing medical supplies to North Carolina's frontline workers.

Photo: Courtesy of Novant Health

Zipline has been pushing the boundaries of drone deliveries for years. Since its first commercial flight in 2016, the Bay Area startup has covered 1.8 million miles and made over 100,000 deliveries of life-saving products to medical facilities — mostly in Africa. But the company hasn't made a single commercial delivery in its home country.

Drones have long been touted as a way of delivering goods to people when other methods are too difficult or slow. Google threw its hat into the ring in 2012, and Amazon did a year later. But even with the might of massive tech companies, the technology has failed to take off in the U.S., primarily as a result of regulatory trepidation. Zipline has been operating mainly in Rwanda, Ghana and Tanzania, and has plans to open up facilities in the Philippines and India, all countries where regulations have been more favorable. But after years of deliberation, Zipline may finally be on a path to kickstarting large-scale, autonomous drone delivery networks in one of the most crowded airspaces in the world. And all it took was a pandemic.

In the U.S., adoption of autonomous drone deliveries has been slow. In 2018, the government approved plans for several small tests across the country, but even with the pandemic keeping millions of Americans stuck at home, the FAA has been wary of approving any large-scale drone-delivery operations. While the administration told Protocol it has been approving ad-hoc flight operations during the pandemic, most of the tests in the country have been one-offs or only flying over short distances.

That is, until today. Partnering with Novant Health, a health care system in North Carolina, Zipline announced that it's been granted approval to deliver medical supplies and protective equipment for round trips between 20 and 30 miles. From a base of operations in Kannapolis, North Carolina, Zipline drones will launch and fly autonomously to two nearby Novant facilities in the Huntersville area. Each drone can carry about 4 pounds of cargo and fly at about 80 mph in just about any weather condition.

The delivery setup is a bit of a step down from what Zipline is used to. Its drones routinely fly up to 100 miles in a single trip, and they're reportedly supplying 65% of all the blood delivered around Rwanda, outside of its capital Kigali. But the U.S. is a much larger proposition; North Carolina alone is around five times larger than Rwanda, so starting out small would likely make it easier to grow from a strong base.

"The FAA has been an incredible partner throughout the process and worked very hard to make this possible," Justin Hamilton, a spokesperson for Zipline, told Protocol.

Zipline's drone drops a package. Zipline's drone drops a package.Photo: Harold Hinson/HHP

Novant has hundreds of locations across North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia. Right now, Zipline is essentially being contracted as a supplier of intra-office logistics services and is operating out of the Kannapolis facility with Novant. The fact that Zipline is delivering from one Novant facility to another, rather than offering something like a delivery service to people's homes, was what convinced the FAA to allow this operation and its unprecedented flight times, Hamilton said. "The FAA worked very hard to find a pathway to make this operation possible," he added.

Zipline and Novant's partnership isn't just about delivering supplies to struggling frontline workers — it's about creating a supply chain that can potentially deliver a vaccine to all parts of the country when it's ready. "We're likely in for a long-term, one- to two-year fight against COVID-19," Zipline founder Keller Rinaudo said in a release. "Using contactless drone delivery will be an important tool in that effort."

As health care systems begin to weigh the logistics of doling out vaccines, they'll have to figure out how to get medicine to who needs it most. "We're going to be staring at a map of the US and playing a game of whack-a-mole," Hamilton said, "and that's something autonomous drone deliveries could help with."

Zipline told Protocol last month that it had had inbound interest from several hospitals and states, and it aims to use its initial tie-up with Novant as a framework to operate in other parts of the U.S. But that will require the approval of the FAA. Since the start of March, the FAA has only approved six organizations for drone flights beyond the line of sight of a human pilot (a rule referred to as Part 107.31), and none of them is allowed to fly beyond state borders.

But the regulations may change quickly enough. A vaccine, if we ever find one, isn't expected before 2021. Zipline is confident over that time frame that it could scale up to cover "significant portions" of the U.S. Whether the FAA would require every hospital chain or medical facility that would want to use a service like this to apply for a waiver like Novant did is unclear. The FAA told Protocol that it was "difficult to determine" whether Zipline's flights would be the longest in the U.S., as it doesn't "approve specific route lengths" as part of its approval process, but otherwise had no comment on the approval.

Zipline's drones will be the first approved to fly in what's called Class D airspace, primarily reserved for commercial aircraft. Although its plans in North Carolina have started small, they open the door to more substantive delivery flights in the future — assuming the FAA puts into place a framework for managing autonomous drones in the U.S. airspace at scale. Jonathan Rupprecht, an aviation lawyer who focuses on the drone industry, recently told Protocol that it would likely be another "year or two" before the FAA would have figured out its plans for allowing drone operators to fly over people, let alone autonomous drones in the commercial airspace.

But if you're living in a small section of North Carolina, you may soon have your life saved by products delivered by Zipline drones. And if this partnership is a success, it's possible that if and when a vaccine is ready, Zipline's autonomous drones could be the ones bringing them to your local hospital.

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