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FAA Issues Emergency Waiver Allowing Drone Delivery of Medical Supplies

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by Patrick J. Paul

Having recently been granted an emergency Part 107 waiver from the Federal Aviation Administration, Novant Health, Inc., a not-for-profit, integrated healthcare system headquartered in North Carolina, in partnership with San Francisco-based drone delivery company, Zipline, has commenced medical drone delivery for the first time in the United States.  Novant announced the launch of America’s first emergency drone logistics operation by a hospital for its pandemic response. Zipline, with a strong international presence already claims almost 40,000 international deliveries, many in Africa.

As previously reported in our prior blog, drone delivery systems may be able to aid communities in a variety of ways as the world manages the current pandemic. Once again, it’s the ingenuity of private companies like Zipline leading the way. Just as SpaceX completed a successful launch and connection with the International Space Station this past weekend, innovative companies like Zipline are leading the charge to bring relief to communities across the globe impacted by COVID-19.

Like many innovations in America, sometimes well-intended government regulation serves as a hindrance to creative thought and forward progress. Here, the FAA’s historic emergency waiver, which will remain in effect until October 31, 2020,  “or until all COVID-related restrictions on travel, business, and mass gatherings have been lifted for the state of North Carolina, whichever date occurs first,” permits Zipline to partner with North Carolina’s Novant Health to provide a beyond visual line-of-sight (BVLOS) medical drone delivery system, through controlled airspace, the first ever in the US.

The FAA regulates drone operations and the flying of drones over people, over long distance where visual sight is lost, and in controlled airspace. Novant will utilize a fulfillment center to facilitate connection with a health logistics center 12 miles apart. To date, drone operators in the United States have generally been restricted to no more than a mile. Operating drones “BVLOS” with permission from the FAA is unchartered territory. Zipline’s deliveries are anticipated to include personal protective equipment such as masks, gowns, and gloves but also will be capable of carrying other supplies to help in fighting the Coronavirus. Though the curve may be flattened, COVID-19 cases and, sadly, deaths, continue to mount. Safe delivery supplies to battle the pandemic via drone seems overdue.

*Editor’s Note: A previous version identified Zipline as the recipient of the waiver.  Although Zipline drones will be utilized, the waiver in fact was issued to Zipline’s partner in this exciting venture with Novant Health, Inc.