Intermountain Healthcare begins drone delivery of prescriptions and other medicines

Fixed-wing aircraft will drop parachutes on homes from southern Jordan, with plans to expand across the Salt Lake Valley.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A zipline drone drops a package during a demonstration in southern Jordan on Tuesday, October 4, 2022.

This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to finding solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.

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The long-awaited era of drone delivery has begun in Utah with a limited trial allowing patients in southern Jordan to receive their medicines and over-the-counter medicines via airdrop.

Intermountain Healthcare has partnered with Zipline on the trial and has begun rolling out fixed-wing drones that can carry up to four pounds per delivery. The planes will be launched from a distribution center built at the Trans-Jordan Landfill in the southwest corner of the Salt Lake Valley. This facility has no runway. Instead, the drones are launched by a slingshot-like launcher and retrieved at the same point by a tether that catches the vehicle as it flies over.

“Logistics will be a game changer for us overall,” said Allison Corry, Intermountain’s vice president of support services. “This is not future technology. This is here and available to us right now.”

Corry said that during the trial, supplies will be limited to specialty pharmaceuticals and certain over-the-counter drugs, but over time both the product line and service area will expand.

The trial service is available to anyone in southern Jordan. You can register at flyzipline.com/utah. Once verified that they are in the eligible territory, they are given access to a website where they can order over-the-counter products or prescription drugs. Deliveries must remain under a maximum weight of four pounds, and controlled narcotics are not available for drone delivery.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kaleb Stanton and Jada Connor prepare a zipline drone for flight at the company’s distribution center in southern Jordan on Tuesday, October 4, 2022.

Corry said Intermountain will cover all drone delivery costs during this testing phase, but ultimately anticipate that drone delivery will not be more expensive than ground delivery.

“In the long term, we think it will be more cost-effective. We believe this will be part of our normal network and cost competitive with what we do today,” she said, adding, “Ziplines don’t take vacations and they don’t stop at traffic lights.”

It will also purify the air. Zipline estimates that its electrically-powered drone flights cause 98% less pollution than transportation using a gas-powered vehicle.

After initial testing in southern Jordan, Zipline has FAA clearance to fly up to 50 miles from its Trans-Jordan facility. They expect to serve a million people in the Salt Lake Valley within five years. The drones may remain in the air for a maximum of two hours per flight, and only one delivery is made per flight.

Intermountain’s pharmacy is currently making around 400 deliveries a day, six days a week, making the drones a common sight. They can also fly at night.

Zipline began delivering blood to remote hospitals in Rwanda in 2016. “In rural communities, women were dying from postpartum hemorrhage,” said Conor French, Zipline’s chief regulatory officer. “We could deliver blood in minutes or an hour at most.”

Based in South San Francisco, the company later expanded into Ghana and currently ships to both African countries. It also has a distribution center in Japan and is setting up centers in Kenya and Côte d’Ivoire. It has operated more than 400,000 flights covering more than 28 million miles.

Utah is the third US state for zipline deliveries. In North Carolina, Zipline has partnered with three healthcare companies to deliver medicines and supplies, and it has partnered with Walmart to deliver retail goods, including groceries, to an area around Walmart’s headquarters in Bentonville, Ark.

Zipline considers itself an “instant logistics” company, which means it’s not just about flying drones, French said. It also takes care of things like inventory management. The South Jordan facility includes cold storage rooms that can store perishable medicines for quick distribution.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A zipline drone drops a package during a demonstration in southern Jordan on Tuesday, October 4, 2022.

Fixed-wing drones, which fly about 60 miles per hour, have one key advantage over helicopter drones: they’re much quieter. They are battery operated and the propellers are designed to reduce noise. However, since they cannot hover or land vertically, they must parachute drop payloads. The company says it can accurately land packages in an area the size of a backyard or driveway. Zipline has a recycling program for the parachute and box.

The drones must stay under 400 feet off the ground, and the drops are from about 90 feet off the ground. In a demonstration Tuesday, a zipline drone circled the landfill before dropping a package near the launch site. The package bounced a few feet as it landed, but the cookies inside didn’t crumble.

Although Zipline has been operating in the United States since 2020, it only recently received FAA certification for “beyond line of sight” flights. The drones are operated by a pilot on the ground and this certification means the pilots do not have to see the drones throughout the flight. Instead, they can rely on instruments to navigate and avoid obstacles. A pilot may fly more than one drone at a time.

French said the company has never had a crash, but there have been mechanical failures that have required the pilot to abort the flight and deploy a parachute to allow the drone to drift to the ground.

https://www.sltrib.com/news/2022/10/05/medicine-dropping-sky-drone/ Intermountain Healthcare begins drone delivery of prescriptions and other medicines

Justin Scacco

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