Bay Area drone startup plans drug deliveries to homes in Salt Lake City
California drone startup Zipline plans to begin delivering medicine and other supplies to homes in Salt Lake City, Utah. The company, whose fixed-wing drones have been transporting medical supplies to rural clinics in Rwanda and Ghana since 2016, has signed a service agreement with Utah-based Intermountain Healthcare to make deliveries to its patients in the city. Zipline said it expects to make its first deliveries in the spring of 2022 and to reach hundreds per day within four years of launching the service.
“We’re excited to help move the industry beyond the pilot phase and build something that can ladder towards a large-scale commercial operation,” said Zipline general counsel Conor French in an interview Tuesday. The company will be able to reach about 90 percent of homes in the Salt Lake City metro area with its drones, which navigate autonomously by satellite and drop payloads of up to four pounds by parachute, French said.
Zipline plans to target yards and driveways for drops. It will need approval from the Federal Aviation Administration before it can begin. The company has applied for certification under the FAA’s program, known as Part 135, for unmanned package delivery.
“We’re very confident that we will have Part 135 certification in time to do this,” said French. (FAA spokesperson Emma Duncan said by email that the administration doesn’t comment on ongoing certification projects.)
Intermountain, a not-for-profit organization founded on a gift from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1975, runs 24 hospitals and 215 medical clinics in Utah, Idaho and Nevada and serves roughly half of Salt Lake City’s population of more than 1.25 million. At the outset, the Zipline service will focus on homebound and immunocompromised patients. In later phases, Intermountain plans to use drones to fill routine prescriptions and deliver over-the-counter medications, with patients using an online signup to arrange for delivery within a 15-to-30-minute window. “We see this as a long-term relationship,” said John Wright, Intermountain’s vice president of supply chain and support services.
Since its founding in 2014, Zipline said it has flown over 15 million miles and made more than 215,000 deliveries, including hundreds of thousands of Covid vaccine doses, in Africa. Its drones launch from catapults and can fly up to 100 miles roundtrip — serving up to 8,000 square miles from a single hub. Earlier this year, the San Francisco-based company raised $250 million at a valuation of $2.75 billion.
Last year, Zipline ran a pilot program delivering personal protective equipment to a pair of health facilities in North Carolina under a limited permission from the FAA. Drone operators backed by Alphabet Inc., Amazon.com Inc., and United Parcel Service Inc., have already been certified by the FAA as unmanned air carriers.
(Corrects number of Covid vaccine doses referred to in paragraph 6; updates items Zipline plans to deliver.)