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SALT LAKE CITY — The term "first in the air" probably conjures memories of grainy black-and-white photos of the Wright Brothers and their wobbly but remarkable flights aboard a fragile, cloth winged aircraft over the sand dunes of North Carolina's Outer Banks in the early 1900s.
But now Utah health services giant Intermountain Healthcare is poised to embrace its own "first in the air" bragging rights as it gets set to launch the state's first unmanned drone delivery system this summer.
Rumors of unmanned drones about to swarm into the overhead airspace on computer-controlled missions to ferry parcels, and even people, from origin to destination have been flying around for years. But, at least in the U.S., only a handful of such operations have achieved liftoff and most of those are still in some version of a testing phase.
Jared Esselman, director of the Utah Department of Transportation's Aeronautics Division, said the technology behind unmanned drone delivery systems has been well tested in recent years, but the U.S. has lagged behind the international community in laying the regulatory groundwork to allow the vehicles to fly on any meaningful scale.
"Nationwide, the urban advanced air mobility industry is quickly getting to the point where package delivery via drone is going to begin earning wider certification by the (Federal Aviation Administration)," Esselman said. "There are companies that have been testing this in the U.S. and globally and have logged millions and millions of flight hours.
"Systems are up in running in many countries and in the U.S. we're right on the cusp of moving from 'let's test this' to 'let's allow drone delivery to connect a customer and a supplier' and that's a big step."
And making connections is exactly the goal of Intermountain Healthcare, which sees this new program as the gateway to the future of moving prescriptions quickly and efficiently from a provider to patients.
Allison Corry, Intermountain Healthcare's chief supply officer, said the shift to a drone-based program from the current system that relies on delivery trucks is a giant step forward in providing more efficient service while also reducing expenses and environmental impacts.
"One of the biggest challenges we continue to face with our geographic growth and expansion of tele-health services is getting more product to the patients' homes," Corry said. "That has an increasing level of logistical complexity. This is an acknowledgement that we needed to be really innovative outside our courier and truck method."
Intermountain is partnering with San Francisco-based drone delivery innovator Zipline to make this leap into the future using a system that's been in operation in international locations for some years now.
Unlike the ubiquitous quadcopter that recreational drone enthusiasts may be familiar with, the Zipline drones are fixed-wing aircraft that measure 6 feet long and have an 11-foot wingspan. The drones weigh about 40 pounds and can transport packages of up to four pounds while cruising along at 70 mph. The aircraft fly autonomously, have a very low operational noise level and a round-trip range of 100 miles.
One of the big advantages to the fixed-wing design, according to Zipline, is the aircraft's ability to fly in most weather conditions, including through all but the most severe precipitation and winds up to the gale force threshold.
Intermountain Healthcare and Zipline will initially focus on delivery of specialty pharmaceuticals and home-care products to patient homes within a 50-mile radius of the South Jordan distribution/flight center, now under construction. Over time, Intermountain Healthcare says it plans to expand to deliver a range of medications and products, including prescriptions, specialty pharmaceuticals and over-the-counter items. The system could also evolve to ferry lab specimens from patients' homes back to Intermountain facilities for assessment.
"Making access to health care faster and more convenient will lead to better health outcomes for our patients," said Marc Harrison, president and CEO of Intermountain Healthcare, in a statement. "And with Zipline, we're making the idea of true care at home a reality for many of our patients."
Corry noted that leaving medications on patients' doorsteps or in mailboxes is not always the best delivery method and with the new drone system, patients will be able coordinate with Intermountain on best delivery times. And, patients will be able to track exactly where their package is via an app and be waiting when it arrives. Packages arrive via parachute drop from a belly cargo port on the Zipline drones. The drops, according to Zipline, have a high level of accuracy and can be zeroed-in to a target about the size of two parking spaces.
The Zipline aircraft take to the air via a small launch ramp at the flight center and, on their return, drop a small hook that grabs a snagline to "catch" the aircraft and lower it to the ground.
Zipline co-founder and CEO Keller Rinaudo said the drone-based system creates unprecedented new efficiencies for delivering critical medications while also leveling the playing field when it comes to patient equity and access.
"Intermountain Healthcare shares our vision of powering telemedicine with instant logistics," Rinaudo said in a statement. "Patients can connect with providers from the home, and then receive the medications and supplies they need in a matter of minutes, directly to their doorsteps.
"For example, a cancer patient could receive her medication without ever leaving her home. Or a single parent could get his child's antibiotics without a trip to the pharmacy. Instant access to care is not just about convenience. It comes down to making health care more equitable, efficient, and reliable for people, regardless of where they live or their circumstances."
Conor French, Zipline's general counsel, said the Intermountain Healthcare delivery program will launch in a limited, beta-test mode but eventually expand to be able to make hundreds of delivery flights daily and provide service to 90% of patient homes in the Salt Lake City metropolitan area.
French noted his company, which was founded in 2014, has been operating automated drone delivery systems for five years now and has logged some 250,00 flights, mostly in the African nations of Rwanda and Ghana. The company is also working on drone delivery programs in and around Kannapolis, North Carolina, and Pea Ridge, Arkansas. Before being able to fly over the heads of Salt Lake City residents, Zipline will need to complete a certification process overseen by the Federal Aviation Administration, an effort French said is currently underway.
French said that while Utah drone flight operations require an FAA signoff, Zipline and Intermountain are also working closely with the Utah Department of Transportation ahead of going live with the delivery program.
Zipline reports it first launched blood deliveries in Rwanda in October 2016 and has since built the first and only automated, on-demand delivery service to operate at a multinational scale. The electric-powered aircraft produce about 30 times less CO2 emissions per mile than an average electric vehicle, according to Zipline estimates. The company says it currently delivers more than 200 different products, including supplies with complex storage and transportation requirements and has completed 37,000 emergency deliveries and transported more than four million doses of medical products, including 90,000 units of blood products and 3.5 million vaccine doses.
While Zipline, and other drone delivery specialists, have been flying deliveries for years in locations around the world, the U.S has lagged behind in embracing the technological advance, mostly due to regulatory constraints. In a February story by Axios, Rinaudo said "It only feels weird and sci-fi in the United States. In other countries, this is normal."
In a recent story, the Wall Street Journal reported Zipline earned the FAA's permission to make deliveries for Walmart in and around Pea Ridge, Arkansas, late last year. That authorization is only granted after a lengthy certification process, or else by earning an exception to existing rules. In either case, the FAA must approve each new drone delivery project individually. While Zipline's drones fly themselves, current FAA regulations require a human to monitor each drone's entire flight, either remotely or by keeping it in sight. A company spokesman says Zipline is working toward certifications that will allow its drones to operate beyond visual line of sight.
People in the industry told the Wall Street Journal that as early tests have shown new drone designs specific to delivery have proved safe, the FAA has lately been moving more quickly to issue permissions for even bigger rollouts.