While drone delivery services are yet to become a practical reality in the consumer world, they’re already proving their mettle in terms of crisis response. After deploying its UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) in parts of Africa to facilitate medical care, Californian robotics company Zipline is now using its technology closer to home, to help tackle the coronavirus pandemic in the US.
In partnership with Novant Health, Zipline’s drones will undertake 32-mile flights on two routes between Novant’s emergency drone fulfilment centre in Kannapolis, North Carolina, and its medical center in Huntersville. Each delivery will ferry personal protective gear and medical equipment to frontline healthcare workers treating COVID-19 patients. The two companies were already in talks about a potential partnership prior to the coronavirus outbreak, but the escalating situation helped to catalyze the deal.
As reported by TechCrunch, the FAA (Federal Aviation Association) believes that the partnership marks the first approved long-range unmanned delivery service in the US — last month we saw a similar program instigated for a retirement community in Florida, although that UAV’s route is just half a mile long.
It’s not clear how long Zipline’s initiative will remain operational, although Novant Health says it plans to expand it within its geographical footprint of North Carolina, South Florida, and Virginia. The FAA granted the project permission thanks to a waiver allowing it to temporarily bypass existing federal code on unmanned aircraft. At this juncture, the waiver is in place “until Oct. 31, 2020, or until all COVID-related restrictions on travel, business and mass gatherings for North Carolina are lifted, whichever occurs first.” Drone delivery is a famously murky area for US law (just ask Amazon), but while legislation is slowly evolving, its impact during this time of national crisis could help to speed things up.