Eighteen months ago, we traveled to Rwanda to see how Zipline had made fast, dependable drone delivery a critical part of medical supply infrastructure on a national scale. But outside of Africa, Zipline’s long-distance delivery drones have had to contend with complex and crowded airspace, decades of stale regulation, and a health care system that’s at least (sort of) functional, if not particularly agile.
Along with several other drone delivery companies, Zipline has been working with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on small-scale pilot projects over the past year or so to prove out the drone delivery concept, but progress has been slow. Now, though, COVID-19 has put enough additional stress on the U.S. health care system that the FAA has granted an emergency waiver to the Part 107 drone rules to allow North Carolina–based Novant Health to partner with Zipline on a beyond-line-of-sight autonomous drone delivery service through controlled airspace—the first of its kind in the United States.
Zipline uses fully autonomous fixed-wing drones to deliver 1.8 kilograms (3.9 pounds) of cargo up to 80 kilometers away, dropping the cargo via parachute and then returning to base. We’ve written extensively about how Zipline’s delivery drones work, so we’re going to focus on what’s unique about this particular partnership with Novant Health in North Carolina. For more about Zipline’s operations, including our visit to one of their “nests” in rural Rwanda, make sure to check out this special report along with an immersive 360° video that we made while we were there.
Normally, drone operations in the United States fall under the FAA’s Part 107 guidelines, which prohibits things like operating over people, over long distances where you can’t see the drone, and in controlled airspace. Novant Health has been granted an emergency Part 107 waiver from the FAA that allows them to deliver supplies for pandemic response via drone through the end of October. Specifically, the waiver applies to the requirements for visual-line-of-sight aircraft operation, the need for visual observers, and operation over people who may not know that drones are flying over them. Novant’s goal is to connect a health logistics center with its Huntersville Medical Center, a straight line distance of about 17 km that takes just over 20 minutes by road.
While the Part 107 waiver is Novant’s, Zipline is doing all of the actual drone delivery. A Zipline fulfillment center was quickly installed next door to Novant’s logistics center, connecting it to Huntersville Medical Center (which is owned by Novant) via this FAA-approved route:
Zipline drones are connecting the Huntersville Medical Center to Novant’s logistics center via this FAA-approved route. Image: Zipline
The reason this map looks the way it does is (I’m guessing) because of the Concord-Padgett Regional Airport, which is about 3 km south of the south end of that wonky looking lake that the drones cut across. The drone’s flight path completely avoids the Class D airspace surrounding the airport, except for the logistics center and the launch and recovery site itself, which is just barely (like, 500 meters) within that Class D perimeter. Perhaps more significant, when Zipline’s drones land—or more accurately, when a tower and wire system snags the drones in midair—the drones appear to be flying directly toward the airport, so a missed capture puts the drone deeper into restricted airspace.
For drone pilots in general, flying in Class D airspace is prohibited without getting authorization from the FAA (and/or the airport that the airspace surrounds). The FAA is working on automated authorizations, which will allow drone pilots to apply for instant permission via an app for low altitude flights within Class D airspace, and some airports have this up and running already. It’s not operational for the Concord-Padgett Regional Airport, but if it was, Zipline would be able to get authorization to fly its drones below 400 feet around its distribution center, which is probably plenty. As it is right now, Zipline tells us that “all of the flight paths to the facilities [our drones] serve are mapped in advance and reviewed and approved by the FAA,” adding that “this is the first drone delivery operation to be approved to fly in airspace where all air traffic is actively managed by the FAA.”
Flying regularly in controlled airspace is one thing, but what’s really worth noting about Zipline’s operation in North Carolina is that it is most decidedly beyond visual line-of-sight (BVLOS). This is a big no-no for any drone user without explicit permission from the FAA—even if your drone can hang on to its signal from kilometers away, you need to be able to see it at all times to be flying legally. Zipline, of course, does not work like this, since its drones are flying very far and doing it without a human in the loop twiddling a joystick. This is perhaps the biggest deal, as far as the FAA is concerned, because so far, drone delivery pilot projects in the United States have been restricted to a range of a couple of kilometers at the most, a distance at which a human could plausibly jump in to take control of an otherwise autonomous drone. Zipline maintains cellular and satellite connections to its drones, but only for telemetry and high level commands. The Zips mostly fly themselves, and if something goes wrong, they have to handle it autonomously, all the way up to making an autonomous emergency parachute landing if necessary.
Ultimately, there’s only so much that Zipline can do to prepare for the unexpected. The company has taken some proactive steps, like adding ADS-B transponders that broadcast the GPS position of the drone to air traffic controllers as well as local aircraft with ADS-B receivers, which should help minimize collisions with manned aircraft. But relative to the other places that Zipline operates (Rwanda and Ghana), the United States has many more recreational drones flying around whose pilots may or may not be obeying the rules or paying attention to their surroundings. Zipline has told us before that having one of their delivery drones plow into someone’s recreational drone is not superhigh on their list of concerns, but they’ve nonetheless been conducting outreach with local law enforcement and other regular airspace users “to help ensure maximum possible awareness and visibility into our operations.” We certainly hope that everything goes smoothly, because whether or not it’s intended as such, the success of this project seems likely to have a substantial influence over the future of long-distance autonomous drone delivery in the United States.
A Zipline drone drops a package, which will parachute near the Huntersville Medical Center, delivering PPE supplies. Photo: Zipline
Zipline’s initial deliveries for Novant will include personal protective equipment (PPE) like masks, gowns, and gloves, but the drones are capable of delivering all kinds of stuff and could potentially help with testing, drug trials, and vaccine distribution. If everything does go well, both Novant and Zipline are interested in scaling up, according to the press release:
Over the next two years, the partnership plans to expand beyond emergency operations in the Charlotte area to regular commercial operations, subject to approval under FAA Part 135 rules, to serve health facilities and, ultimately, patients’ homes across the state. Novant Health and Zipline’s partnership seeks to create a next-generation model for health system logistics leveraging contactless drone deliveries.
And really, scale is what’s going to be the key to proving the value of long-distance drone delivery. Zipline’s system is not designed to efficiently deliver gowns (and other bulky, nonperishable items) from one fulfillment center to one medical center a few tens of kilometers away. The real value for Zipline comes from delivering small, high value, time-sensitive payloads (like blood) to hundreds of sites spread across thousands of square kilometers. What’s happening in North Carolina right now is an important first step, and it’s a step that we haven’t seen anyone else take yet in the United States.
At the same time, it’s important to keep this step in context—Novant and Zipline are unlikely to solve any critical COVID-19 supply problems with what they have set up today, and even looking forward, it seems likely that the most significant impact of long-distance drone delivery will come from deliveries to rural areas, rather than urban centers. But the hope is that this initiative will lead to another, and that eventually, we might have a chance with catching up with those countries in Africa that have been ahead of us on drone delivery for years.