Feb 1, 2022 - Economy

Home medicine delivery by drone set to grow in 2022

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Zipline, a leading drone operator, will begin delivering prescription medicines to patients' homes in a suburb of Charlotte, North Carolina, this year, helping usher in the long-anticipated era of routine drone drops.

Why it matters: Battery-operated drones could satisfy our demand for "instant delivery" in less than 15 minutes, while easing traffic congestion, improving safety and helping the environment.

The big picture: Drones routinely deliver medicine, food and sundries today in places like Australia, Finland and Africa.

  • But the revolution has been playing out in slow motion in the U.S. while the Federal Aviation Administration works on rules to govern drone safety in our increasingly crowded skies.
  • Drone delivery in the U.S. is poised to accelerate as companies like Zipline and Google-owned Wing push ahead with increasingly sophisticated trials with the FAA's blessing.

Driving the news: Zipline is set to announce Tuesday that it will partner with the pharmacy unit of Magellan Health to deliver prescriptions — including high-cost specialty medications — directly to patients' homes, Axios is first to report.

  • The trial, which awaits the FAA's nod, will take place in and around Kannapolis, North Carolina, where Zipline has a distribution center serving nearby hospitals.
  • Zipline recently started a delivery-by-drone pilot with Walmart, dropping packages of 4 pounds or less in customers' yards in rural Pea Ridge, Arkansas.
  • The company plans a third distribution center in Salt Lake City, which will expand the number of communities it can serve.

What they're saying: "It only feels weird and sci-fi in the United States," Zipline CEO Keller Rinaudo tells Axios. "In other countries, this is normal."

  • Within a week of using drone delivery, the novelty wears off and people start taking the service for granted, he says: "Seven days to go from science fiction to entitlement"
  • Chronically ill patients who can get their meds quickly and conveniently are less likely to visit the ER or need other high-cost interventions, which helps bring down the overall cost of health care, Magellan Rx Management CEO Mostafa Kamal tells Axios.

Where it stands: Logan, Australia, near Brisbane, is the drone delivery capital of the world, accounting for the bulk of the more than 140,000 deliveries to customers Wing completed in 2021.  

  • Wing is also delivering coffee, food and other items to residents in Christiansburg, Virginia, a town of 21,000 near Roanake, in partnership with local retailers and Walgreens.
  • At-home COVID tests have been the most popular item in January.

What's next: A big milestone will occur in a few months when Wing begins drone deliveries in Dallas, its first major metropolitan service area, starting with Walgreens.

  • "Launching there will show the regulator and the industry that drone delivery is ready to expand further," says Jonathan Bass, head of Wing marketing and communications. "In the next year, you’ll see drone delivery expand significantly."
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