Zipline Set to Drop Off First Batches of Medication by Drone in Utah

Image Credit: iStock, BackyardProductions

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Unmanned flying machines dropping packages at our homes may still feel like sci-fi, but the industry has come a long way since Alphabet’s Wing first delivered a purple down vest to 81-year-old Christianburg, Virginia resident Susie Sensmeier in 2019.

This week, the industry continued its skyward trajectory when California startup Zipline signed on with Intermountain Healthcare, a non-profit that runs dozens of hospitals and hundreds of clinics around Utah, Idaho and Nevada, to drop prescription drugs by parachute to the driveways and yards of patients living in Salt Lake City.

In the Drone

Zipline’s deal is one of the industry’s biggest to date, and will test whether or not it can scale. The first drops will begin in spring of 2022, with Intermountain hoping to reach hundreds of deliveries per day by 2026.

  • To start, Zipline will focus on very ill or immunocompromised patients, but Intermountain plans to eventually use its drones to fill routine prescriptions, and even deliver over-the-counter medications.
  • Zipline’s fixed-wing devices, which are launched by catapult and are navigated autonomously by satellite, will drop payloads up to four pounds each and be able to reach 90% of Salt Lake City homes within a 15 to 30 minute window.

The deal may or may not have happened without the pandemic. Fifteen-minute delivery via robot sounds like an extravagance, but the global crisis highlighted drones’ uses when it comes to getting food and medication to the sick or elderly and filling gaps in the supply chain.

Not Cleared for Takeoff: Zipline still needs to get approval for its unmanned flights from the Federal Aviation Administration, and that shouldn’t be a problem, as the agency has already granted such licenses to Amazon, Alphabet, and UPS.

Thousands of Flight Hours: Zipline has made more than 215,000 deliveries in Africa since 2014, and began delivering COVID vaccines this week in Ghana, where it has been tasked with delivering vaccines to 40% of the nation’s population. So getting granny her blood pressure medicine should be a cinch.