- Leading drone operator Zipline is partnering with two healthcare companies to deliver prescription drugs directly to patients’ homes.
- Approved by the Federal Aviation Administration, the work will take place in Charlotte, North Carolina and Salt Lake City.
- There are concerns about drone deliveries, including safety, theft, weather conditions and cost.
Some U.S. cities may soon see something new: drones tasked with delivering prescription drugs to patients’ homes.
Leading drone manufacturer and operator Zipline is partnering with two healthcare companies — Magellan Health and Intermountain Healthcare — to use drones to deliver prescription drugs and other medical supplies to people’s homes.
According to Zipline, drone deliveries will begin this year in Charlotte, North Carolina, and after receiving approval from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), there are plans to serve communities in Salt Lake City in the future.
The potential of drones to provide medical services
Zipline and Walmart already offer over-the-counter health and wellness products in Northern Arkansas, Okeoma Moronu, J.D., Zipline’s head of aviation regulatory and legal affairs, told VigorTip in an email.
“We’re working on expanding the service,” Moronu said. “We work closely with the FAA to provide all necessary approvals for safe, clean, quiet and reliable operations.”
Battery-powered drones can deliver on average in about 30 minutes, compared to hours or days that traditional methods often take. Zipline customers have the option to pick up their medication within 15 minutes.
“Lightweight, clean, electric, aerial delivery has incredible benefits,” Moronu said. “Autonomous aircraft are also more sustainable than traditional delivery methods, reducing energy per package by about 96 percent, while taking unnecessary delivery vehicles off our streets.”
The company began its efforts in 2016, delivering blood in Rwanda and eventually other medical supplies to Ghana. Early in the pandemic, Zipline partnered with Novant Health to provide personal protective equipment to frontline healthcare workers in North Carolina. Since then, the company has made more than 250,000 commercial deliveries and shipped nearly 2 million medical products, including 650,000 COVID-19 vaccines.
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Moronu said they continue to operate in these counties and plan to expand their system to Nigeria, Côte d’Ivoire and Japan in 2022.
But as the drone delivery business continues to expand in different countries, how safe, reliable, and realistic is the job in the United States? Here’s what you need to know.
The benefits of drone medical services
According to Moronu, virtual appointments have proliferated during the pandemic — but patients still have to venture into pharmacies to pick up their medicines. This can make it difficult for patients with chronic health conditions or limited transportation.
Drone delivery can provide patients with the necessary medicines to treat chronic or complex illnesses on their own schedule without leaving home.
This type of operation may also be beneficial in remote rural areas where transportation can be particularly expensive or time-consuming, Sachiko Ozawa, MHS, an associate professor at the UNC School of Pharmacy with a background in public health, told VigorTip.
“Drones will be able to deliver drugs over any geographic barrier where the terrain may be inaccessible or difficult to traverse, such as mountains, wetlands or islands, improving drug access,” Ozawa said.
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Others argue that drones could deliver medicines more efficiently and faster to patients with urgent medical needs or strict medication schedules.
“Delivery delays can occur when mail-in delivery is used, in which case acute medications that should be used immediately may not arrive until several days after the scheduled start date,” said Cathi Dennehy, PharmD, clinical professor of pharmacy health sciences at the University of California, California The UCSF School of Pharmacy told VigorTip. “Other advantages of drone delivery compared to in-person delivery include fast delivery times, energy savings, reduced location constraints, a safer delivery system and time savings.”
Weaknesses and concerns
While there are clear benefits and advantages to using drones to deliver medicines, there are also some disadvantages and problems.
Ozawa questioned how to properly store medicines if they require specific temperature and humidity controls to ensure their quality. However, in 2021, Zipline partnered with Pfizer to complete the first remote drone delivery of a COVID-19 vaccine, which must be stored in extremely cold temperatures. This marks progress in addressing these challenges.
Dennehy added that the disadvantages of such an operation may include:
- Equipment failure
- The cost of the drone itself
- Requires training and maintenance technicians to operate the equipment
- Equipment and patient-specific medications may be stolen or damaged
“If the drone has an equipment failure or is tampered with, causing it to fall out of the sky, the potential for theft and privacy risks will be an issue,” Dennehy said. “The number of drones flying in the airspace and flight path at any given time is also concerning.”
While the experts we spoke with cited safety and technical support as concerns for the use of drones across the pharmaceutical industry, a Zipline spokesperson said the company has completed more than 250,000 commercial deliveries without a safety incident and has implemented stringent quality control measures to address issues such as temperature regulation.
Weather-related factors also pose challenges for such operations. Both Ozawa and Dennehy explained that battery capabilities, drone propeller capabilities, and enough fuel to travel a certain distance are all possible risks of flying a drone in sub-freezing or overheating temperatures.
As Zipline claims, their drones are designed to fly in a variety of conditions, including nighttime, high and low temperatures, and high winds and rain. Instead of landing in people’s homes, drones will also drop packages into patients’ front yards, backyards, driveways, or similar locations.
“Patients and customers can choose the precise window they want their packages to arrive at, so they know when to go out and pick them up,” Moronu added.
Another big disadvantage of drone delivery is that patients cannot discuss any questions or concerns about their medications directly with a pharmacist.
“As a pharmacist, I still have a lot of patients I care for in the clinic who love to get their medication from their local pharmacy and talk to the pharmacist — to answer their medication questions and get educated about their medications,” Lisa Kroon, CA PharmD, a professor and chair of the UCSF School of Pharmacy, told VigorTip in an email.
There are also concerns about price and affordability. How much will the patient’s delivery cost? How will insurance handle these expenses? What if the drone crashes? The answers to these questions are still under discussion.
what does this mean to you
Drones may soon provide Americans with prescription drugs and other medical needs. While this operation has several benefits, more information is needed to determine cost and safety.
expectations and next steps
How realistic and useful is this operation in the United States? According to Kroon, timely access to drugs is not a challenge in the U.S. because most Americans live close to a pharmacy. It’s estimated that nearly 9 in 10 Americans live within 5 miles of a community pharmacy, she said.
“In rural areas, pharmacist access is limited, but it’s hard to predict how popular this will be,” Kroon said.
Ozawa added that drug delivery by drone could be suitable for remote areas with niche needs, but he believes it would be more efficient and safer to use traditional modes of transportation in urban areas.
While the action is realistic, Kroon said it will require the involvement of multiple federal agencies, including the FAA, Federal Trade Commission, Food and Drug Administration, Drug Enforcement Administration and the Department of Health and Human Services.
In some cases, drone medical delivery operations can provide benefits to consumers and medical institutions, especially in areas with limited supply. But many experts believe that, as with all new things, it should be more piloted and studied to understand its strengths and limitations.
Correction – February 16, 2022: Updated this article to clarify regulations for drone medical delivery and its storage capacity.