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SOUTH JORDAN — Using a couple of taps on your smartphone to deploy a computer-controlled electric aircraft to whisk through the sky and drop needed supplies in your front yard is no longer a distant sci-fi fantasy.
On Tuesday, health services giant Intermountain Healthcare and San Francisco-based delivery drone innovator Zipline declared the future is now and proved it in a demonstration of new technology that is not a beta test or pilot effort. It's a live program available now to deliver specialty medications and over-the-counter pharmaceuticals to customers in the South Jordan area.
While drone delivery service has had a foothold for years in numerous international locations, a stringent U.S. federal regulatory system has contributed to a lag in adopting the new technology domestically, and Intermountain's program is the first of its kind west of the Mississippi, according to program officials.
For now, the service will only be available to Intermountain clients in the South Jordan area who will receive their items via parachuted package drops from fixed-wing drones launched from a flight center near the Trans-Jordan Landfill. However, the electric-propelled aircraft have a service range of 50 miles, and Intermountain says within five years it will be able to extend the flying bot delivery service to about a third of Utah's population, some 1 million potential customers.
Zipline's chief regulatory officer, Conor French, said his company is typically labeled as simply a drone innovator but the systems it is building around the world are enabling "automated instant logistics."
"We're often thought of as a drone company but we want to stress that this is really about a new form of logistics, one that's more agile, efficient and sustainable," French said. "With this system, we're really trying to envision transporting physical goods with the ease of sending a text message."
French noted that while drone delivery service is seen as a brand new innovation in the U.S., his company has been operating flights for over five years in multiple countries with its delivery drones traveling the equivalent of twice the circumference of the Earth each day and averaging a delivery every two minutes.
"The future is here," French said.
As Intermountain's drone delivery expands across the Salt Lake Valley, it will take an increasing number of land-bound delivery vehicles off the road, saving fuel, lowering emissions and reducing congestion, according to Zipline and Intermountain.
Allison Corry, Intermountain Healthcare's chief supply chain officer, said the new drone delivery option is a logical next step for the health services provider, which has been managing its own supply chain and logistics operations for over a decade. And, she said it's an offering that puts Intermountain a step ahead of its competition.
"This is not future technology," Corry said. "This is here and available to us at this moment and, from a logistics perspective, a game-changer for us more broadly.
"The next evolution ... of us staying ahead of our competitors and market in the health care supply chain space."
Drone delivery service combined with Intermountain's growing telehealth service offerings is laying the groundwork for care that could eliminate in-person visits while also nixing the need to get to the pharmacy or waiting for a driver to arrive with a needed prescription, according to Gordon Slade, Intermountain's associate vice president of supply chain logistics.
"This partnership allows us to reach patients faster than we ever thought possible, at a time that's convenient for them," Slade said in a statement. "Combined with our telehealth services like Connect Care, it's possible to virtually see a doctor and get medication you need delivered from Zipline, without having to travel to a clinic or the hospital."
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 4 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.
While Intermountain Healthcare and Zipline will initially focus on delivery of specialty pharmaceuticals and over-the-counter products to patient homes in the South Jordan area, both the delivery area and list of deliverables are set to expand.
Over time, Intermountain Healthcare says it plans to expand to grow its range of drone-deliverable medications and products and the system could also start ferrying lab specimens from patients' homes back to Intermountain facilities for assessment and potentially carry items between Intermountain facilities.
The Zipline drones 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.
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. The drones also have built-in redundant flight systems, can be taken over if necessary by a human pilot and, in the event of a catastrophic mechanical failure, deploy a parachute that Zipline says safely lowers the aircraft to the ground.
Zipline was founded in 2014 and has been operating automated drone delivery systems for over five years now, logging some 400,000 flights and traveling 27 million miles under autonomous piloting, 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 completed a certification process overseen by the Federal Aviation Administration.
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 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 10,000 different products, including supplies with complex storage and transportation requirements, and has delivered 140,000 units of blood of which almost 90,000 were for emergency purposes. Zipline has delivered over 3.5 million items including more than 6 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, Zipline co-founder and CEO Keller Rinaudo said "It only feels weird and sci-fi in the United States. In other countries, this is normal."
To learn more about Intermountain's new delivery system and find out if it is available where you live, visit https://www.flyzipline.com/utah.