Drones Deliver Vital Supplies and Fill Delivery Gap During Pandemic

Use of unmanned aircraft is on the rise as health care facilities require ever more protective gear and medical supplies. With the promise of contactless delivery, drone developers can also bring relief to quarantined populations that struggle to find safe delivery of food and medical supplies and provide protection for delivery personnel.


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Photo credit: Zipline

According to NASA, some 700,000 unmanned aircraft systems, or drones, are estimated to fly in the sky this year. While some are strictly recreational, others are tackling last-mile delivery issues and providing quick turn-around on package delivery.

Drones are already being deployed in some smart cities to provide information on crowd control and traffic management. Several cities have used drones to blast social distancing warnings. They are also being used to deliver packages, food, medicine, and supplies. The skies are opening even more as drones prove to be adept delivery vehicles during the pandemic. 


Air Delivery System

The COVID-19 pandemic is shining a spotlight on drones and how they can be used to help people during times of crisis. Zipline and Matternet, two drone companies, have been using their drones for non-pandemic-related deliveries, and are now pivoting to address delivery gaps arising from COVID-19 issues.

Zipline, based in South San Francisco, CA, has developed an autonomous unmanned fixed-wing aircraft to bring much-needed supplies to doctors and clinics in remote villages in Africa where flight restrictions are far less stringent than in the US. The drones take supplies from the main hospitals to smaller clinics that have limited inventory. The company initially launched in Rwanda in 2016, and expanded to Ghana. In a recent article reported by CNBC, Zipline claims its drones have covered more than 2 million miles and have delivered more than 60,000 vaccines, units of blood, and other medications.

Each Zipline drone is 6 feet long with an 11-foot wingspan and weighs about 50 lbs., if filled with the maximum payload of 4 lbs. Takeoff and landing occur at fixed Zipline sites, and the drones can fly up to 100 miles roundtrip, in rain and even gale force winds. Payloads drop via parachute. Health workers place orders via text message and deliveries arrive within about 30 minutes. Drones are guided by the Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) and Inertial Navigation Communications via 2.4Ghz line of sight radio, GSM cellular, and iridium satellite communications. Data is encrypted using the Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) cipher algorithm with 128-bit keys and SHA-256 HMAC scheme for authentication and integrity checks.

Even before the pandemic, Zipline was planning to test drone delivery services in the US. Since the COVID-19 outbreak, that plan has been fast-tracked, and Zipline has begun delivering personal protective equipment and medical equipment to Novant Health in North Carolina. The drones fly between Novant’s emergency drone fulfillment center in Kannapolis and its Huntersville medical center. Novant hopes to expand the drone service to South Carolina and Virginia, pending FAA approval.

Drone Drops

Matternet, based in Menlo Park, CA, recently began working with UPS and CVS to bring prescriptions to the largest retirement community in Florida, allowing the residents to avoid visiting the pharmacy and thus limiting their potential exposure to infection. Drones allow for easier same-day and temperature-sensitive deliveries. In most cases, Matternet’s drones fly less than a half mile to drop parcels at a distribution location, where a UPS truck will collect it before bringing it to the resident.

UPS is also using Matternet drones to deliver documents, blood samples, and other medical supplies to WakeMed Health and Hospitals in Raleigh, NC. The service uses Matternet’s M2 drone logistics system, which includes the Matternet M2 quadcopter drone and the Matternet Cloud Platform. The drone can carry a 5 lbs. payload over a predetermined flight path up to 12.5 miles; most deliveries take about three minutes. The flight is monitored by a Remote Pilot-in-Command (RPIC), who can intervene if necessary. The drone delivers to a fixed landing pad, which opens to receive the drone and its payload. The M2 uses a rechargeable lithium-ion battery.

Drone outside of building

Photo credit: UPS

Matternet had been making deliveries to hospitals in Switzerland and the US., but when COVID-19 broke out some medical facilities shifted their focus to pandemic-related services and no longer required Matternet’s services. The company hopes that will change soon and is prepared to expand delivery services once it gets the green light.

Google’s parent company, Alphabet, launched the Wing drone to deliver food in Virginia (and Finland and Australia). The company saw an uptick in business as people began to shelter in place. Wing deliveries have included pastries from a local bakery, and food and household items from Walgreens. Customers place an order via a phone app, and the Wing can deliver shortly thereafter. The 10-pound aircraft can carry a 3-pound payload and can fly at speeds up to 65 mph. Packages are lowered via a rope to the customer’s yard. Amazon is exploring drone delivery as well.

Video Analytics in the Cloud

Many of these intelligent drones depend on video analytics for image analysis and real-time object detection. Gorilla Technology’s Intelligent Video Analytics Recorder (IVAR), which works with drones, vehicles, and industrial computers, is available as an Intel(R) IoT RFP Ready solution in the Intel® Solutions Marketplace. 

The flexibility of small unmanned aircraft makes them ideal for last-mile and contact-free deliveries. Never has that been more valuable as the world struggles to provide critical supplies to people in need. 


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