In six months, if someone goes to the local hospital on Smith Island—a tiny community 12 miles off the coast of Maryland—they might get a life-saving delivery of medicine via drone.
Zipline, a startup that is launching medical drone deliveries in Rwanda this month, had made clear it could also provide a lot of benefits to the U.S. as the FAA rethought drone rules. Today it announced where, beginning with Smith Island, Native American reservations in Nevada, and the San Juan islands in Washington.
In many remote communities now, if someone needs a transfusion or rare medicine, they have to be taken somewhere else that has the right supplies—possibly via helicopter, or travelling hours in an ambulance or boat. Now, the supplies can come to them.
"What we believe is that if you can just find a better way to just get the products where they're needed, you're going to both improve the standard of care and reduce cost for a lot of people," says Will Hetzler, Zipline's cofounder and COO.
Zipline's technology, a fully autonomous drone, is designed to work like a modern jet. If any particular part fails, the aircraft can still fly itself home safely.
"What we've been able to do is miniaturize it to unmanned vehicles in a way that no one else in the industry has done yet," he says. "That's our primary means of reliability and safety." A human controller—analogous to an air traffic controller—monitors each flight and can step in if anything goes wrong.
The drones can take medicine or blood from a medical distribution center directly where it's needed. Because so many different medicines or medical devices exist—and it's very hard to forecast what might be needed—even some urban clinics struggle to keep what they need in stock. In tiny rural health centers, those supplies often aren't accessible at all.
"I think the reality, which may be surprising to some people, is that there are lots of places in the U.S. that need better access to health products, whether it's emergency blood transfusions or just day-to-day medical needs," says Hetzler.
While there's a need for better access to supplies in rural and remote across the entire U.S., Zipline chose to start in three areas where it should be easier to get approval from the FAA. To get to Smith Island, for example, the drone will fly over water rather than populated areas. They expect to get approval within six months.
But they plan to expand as quickly as possible. "In my opinion, there are going to be a lot in the beginning of what kind of look like niche use cases, but what are actually just the leading edge of a transformative wave of how we approach health logistics," he says.
In smaller cities or peri-urban areas, there are also many hospitals that could use the same type of service. Right now, many rely on hospital vending machines that serve up rarer medicines on demand—a system that's expensive for suppliers to maintain, driving up the cost of the medicine itself.
"We're going to be able to alleviate the need for these really hacked, expensive solutions," says Hetzler. "We can hold it in the medical distribution center where it's held already, and when you need it, you'll have it in less than 30 minutes. And it's as simple as that."
The speed that the company is able to roll out will depend on politics. "The technology is ready," he says. "So the question is how quickly can the U.S. get to the point where we decide as a country that we're comfortable introducing this new technology into the air space. Absolutely there are complexities to that, which means that some areas will get this much more slowly than others."
Today, Zipline is participating in a workshop hosted by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy that will bring together experts from government, academia, and industry to talk about how drones can be safely used. The event follows the FAA's announcement of new rules in June for commercial drones.
"Up until now, I think a lot of people have viewed this technology as something that is far away, particularly for the U.S.," Hetzler says. "I think people are going to be surprised at how close it really is, because the technology's ready. My guess is that within the year we'll have people within the U.S. whose lives have been saved by drone deliveries. This is going to very quickly become a routine thing."
Have something to say about this article? You can email us and let us know. If it's interesting and thoughtful, we may publish your response.