Zipline drones are delivering medical supplies to frontline workers

The startup's partnership with Novant delivers along a 32-mile route. It's the longest unmanned delivery route in the U.S.

Zipline, a startup focused on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), is set to use its drones to deliver personal protective equipment (PPE) like masks and gloves to frontline healthcare workers in the fight against COVID-19. The company has partnered with Novant Health, an integrated health network, to distribute critical healthcare supplies to the Charlotte, North Carolina metro area.

The drone operation, which has already been approved by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), is being touted as the first authorized long-range drone delivery flight program in the United States. Drones will fly 32 miles on two routes, between Novant’s fulfillment center in Kannapolis, North Carolina, and its medical center in Huntersville.

With mitigating human-to-human contact one of the top concerns in fighting the spread of the coronavirus across the country, there’s really never been a better time to deploy a fleet of unmanned drones.

Historic air space — Drones might seem like old news in the rapidly shifting world of consumer tech, but using them for unmanned deliveries is still very new indeed. In fact, the idea is so new that Zipline had to ask for a special waiver from the FAA to launch the operation. It's not the first company to do deliveries by drone, though. Alphabet-backed company Wing has been trialing them in Virginia since last year, and UPS started delivering medication in Florida this month.

Technically the Zipline drones flying unmanned for 32 miles goes against federal guidelines for aircraft. That’s why the FAA granted the company a 107 waiver to bypass that federal code. That waiver only allows the operation to continue “until Oct. 31, 2020, or until all COVID-related restrictions on travel, business and mass gatherings for North Carolina are lifted, whichever occurs first.”

Will this set a precedent? — U.S. laws around the operation of UAVs are about as clear as mud. Our legal system is just not prepared yet with robust policies around drone-flying. If you ask about using drones as a delivery method, the default answer is just a simple “no.”


According to Hank Capps, Senior VP at Novant, the operation does plan to expand the operation to other parts of its health network. That includes other areas of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia. This expansion will, of course, be subject to further approval by the FAA.

Getting your Prime parcel is still some way off — But don’t expect this to carry over into delivery of consumer goods, at least not for the time being. U.S. air space restrictions are strict; just ask Amazon if you want the gory details on trying to reason with the FAA about consumer drone deliveries.

What this comes down to, really, is an extraordinary allowance — and for good reason. Human resources are scarce right now, but healthcare workers need tons of medical supplies to keep fighting COVID-19. Drones are really the perfect solution to that particular problem.