The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the deadly consequences of fractured medical supply chains. Drones, said Yap, may be part of the solution. Proponents say they eliminate the need for delivery trucks and avoid human contact.
For more than a year, North Carolina — where modern aviation was born, at Kitty Hawk — has been the site of tests of drone deliveries, in coordination with the Federal Aviation Administration.
The FAA usually requires that drones operate within sight of their operators, which limits the distance they can fly; for these flights, an exception has been made.
One of the first personal protective equipment drone drops in the U.S. took place this week.
The drone was launched by Novant Health, Inc., which operates 15 hospitals and close to 700 different facilities in the southeastern U.S. The health care system said it hopes to use regular flights to deliver masks, gowns, gloves and other protective gear.
In the future, the company hopes to use them for testing, drug trials and vaccine distribution.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has tasked us with being even more nimble and innovative in how we solve complex challenges,” said Angela Yochem, Novant’s chief digital and technology officer. She said discussions about drone deliveries began more than a year ago, pre-pandemic.
She was there for last Friday’s test drop.
“It was exhilarating,” she said.
The drones launch from Novant’s logistics center in Kannapolis, North Carolina, carry up to 4 pounds, and have a round-trip range of 100 miles. Yochem foresees a day when two tons of medical supplies can be delivered every week. Novant hopes to get FAA approvals to send them to hundreds of additional facilities, and eventually, possibly, drop prescriptions at patient’s homes.
The drones are operated by Zipline, a Half Moon Bay, California-based company which has made more than 40,000 deliveries abroad, including major medical supply programs in Rwanda and Ghana. This is their first U.S. partnership.
Zipline CEO Keller Rinaudo sees long-term benefits to using drones to provide medical care.
“This is something that can have a big impact on equality of access to health care, and treating the most vulnerable members of our population,” he said. “So although COVID-19 makes the need even more dire, we really view this as something that can help over the long run.”
Drones are already being deployed around the world as part of the response to COVID-19. Police launched them to enforce or monitor lockdowns in Israel, Italy, France, China, India, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates and Spain. They’ve been used to enforce social distancing in New York City and New Jersey. In Dubai they have been used to spray disinfectant on streets.
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