The Covid-19 pandemic has frozen much of the world’s aviation system, grounding fleets, shredding balance sheets, and stopping production lines as passenger demand craters. But in Ghana, a new fleet of aircraft took flight on Friday in an effort to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus. These small drones, operated by US startup Zipline, are transporting coronavirus test samples from more than 1,000 health facilities to laboratories in the cities of Accra and Kumasi. And, CEO Keller Rinaudo says, Zipline aims to launch a similar program in North Carolina in coming weeks.
The pandemic has pushed many companies out of their comfort zones—automakers are producing ventilators and passenger flights are hauling cargo. In this case, Rinaudo says, Zipline’s strengths are suited to the crisis. Its service, first used to deliver blood for transfusions in Rwanda in 2016, requires limited infrastructure and minimal human contact. “It’s very obvious why deliveries not using humans are suddenly really, really important,” he says.
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Instead of a runway, Zipline launches its drones from a catapult at one of its four distribution centers, which span the country from the border with Burkina Faso in the north to the Atlantic Ocean some 400 miles to the south. Each center includes a couple of shipping containers for operations, assembly, repairs, and storage. Before takeoff, an operator loads a payload weighing up to 4 pounds into the belly of the plane-shaped aircraft, along with a fresh battery pack. Once airborne, the drone, made of expanded foam and with an 11-foot wingspan, can cruise at about 60 mph and cover 100 miles. When it reaches its destination, it descends to about 40 feet and ejects its package, which floats to the ground tied to a paper parachute, aiming for a landing zone the size of two parking spots. Then it returns to base and touches down by catching the small hook on its tail onto a nylon cord strung between two A frames, winding up like a bungee jumper at the end of his rope.
In Ghana, rural health facilities send their coronavirus tests to the distribution centers. On Friday, Zipline ran four flights to Accra, transporting 51 Covid test samples and making each trip in under an hour. On Saturday, it started service to Kumasi. Now, Rinaudo says, the company is ramping up service, looking to deliver as many samples as needed every day.
In addition to shipping test-kit flights, Zipline is using drones to ferry unused tests, protective equipment like gloves and masks, and supplies including vaccines and cancer drugs from its distribution centers to the rural health facilities. The idea, Rinaudo says, is to make it easier for people to get what they need without going to a hospital, where they could be exposed to the coronavirus and take up scarce resources. The company is doing similar work in Rwanda.
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Rinaudo has been working for years to get regulatory approval to operate Zipline’s drones in US airspace, and the pandemic may open the door. He sees Zipline doing in North Carolina what it’s doing in Ghana, moving Covid-19 test samples and PPE between health facilities, and bringing medical supplies to people who don’t want to go near a hospital. It would fit into the North Carolina Department of Transportation’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Pilot Program.
Using Zipline’s drones for that kind of work wouldn’t be totally new in North Carolina. Since last year, the state’s DOT has been working with drone company Matternet and UPS to move blood transfusion supplies between a WakeMed hospital in Raleigh and nearby facilities, using quadcopters to turn 30-minute drives into 3-minute flights. Zipline offers the same advantage, Rinaudo says. “Most of the value of what we do is in instant, low-cost, reliable delivery.”
Moving supplies by drone means not worrying about traffic, finding a human driver, or ensuring a vehicle is available, says Basil Yap, who runs the DOT’s drone program. “Air is far quicker than any courier service.” The DOT and Zipline had been planning to start a delivery program in the fall, but are expediting the launch because of Covid-19, with plans to use the drones to move test samples, PPE, and other supplies. “Any relief for the existing medical logistics system will help the overall response,” Yap says.
Zipline’s fixed wing aircraft are best suited to flights covering dozens of miles, which means that putting them to good use requires permission from the FAA to fly them beyond the operator’s line of sight. (For shorter trips, a quadcopter works just fine. For its Raleigh operation, UPS has that FAA permission.) Yap and Rinaudo say they’re working with the FAA to secure that permission. An FAA spokesperson says the agency does not comment on applications.
Rinaudo is eager for the green light to set Zipline’s drones aloft in his home country, as well as abroad. “This is already scaled in other countries, and standing by, ready to meet this challenge.”
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