Novant Health will deliver personal protective equipment and medical supplies to its facilities via drones, the health system announced Wednesday.
Novant Health has partnered with drone startup Zipline for the program, which the organizations say marks the first time a U.S. hospital has used drones to respond to to the COVID-19 pandemic, for "contactless" distribution of supplies to the health system's facilities in the Charlotte, N.C., metropolitan area.
Healthcare organizations and logistics companies in recent years have been testing the potential for drones to deliver medical supplies more quickly and efficiently, since drones can fly along a fixed path, unencumbered by traffic and other roadway delays. Drones have previously been used in healthcare to deliver lab samples, blood and automated external defibrillators.
For this latest program, the Federal Aviation Administration has so far approved Novant Health for two routes for drones to travel along. Round trip, the initial routes range in distance from 20 to 30 miles.
The FAA also granted Novant Health a Part 107 waiver to begin operations, a first for a health system. The project is part of the North Carolina Department of Transportation's Unmanned Aircraft System Integration Pilot Program.
For the initial service, Zipline—perhaps best known for its work delivering blood and other medical supplies to remote locations in Rwanda and Ghana—will launch drones from an emergency drone fulfillment center in Kannapolis, N.C., and deliver supplies to Novant Health's Huntersville (N.C.) Medical Center.
The drones, which are able to carry nearly four pounds of cargo and fly up to 80 miles per hour, will drop off supplies at Huntersville Medical Center from the sky, with products released with a parachute at a designated spot. The drones will then return and land at the emergency drone fulfillment center.
Novant Health and Zipline plan to expand to additional facilities in future phases of the project.
"Novant Health has long been at the forefront of leveraging technology to enhance how healthcare is delivered to our patients," said Angela Yochem, Novant Health's chief digital and technology officer, in a statement. "Fast-tracking our medical drone transport capability is just one example of how we're pioneering in the healthcare industry, which is known for being resistant to change."
Novant Health and Zipline said they're hoping to expand their partnership over the next two years beyond emergency operations, delivering supplies unrelated to COVID-19 to other healthcare facilities and even patient homes.