Prescriptions to fall from Utah’s skies next year, with new drone deliveries

The service will start in Salt Lake County in 2022, the company said.

(Courtesy of Zipline) A package with a parachute dropped from a Zipline aircraft in Rwanda.

Intermountain Healthcare is launching a drone-delivery service that it says will be able to fly drugs and home care equipment to hundreds of patients’ homes each day in Utah.

Eventually, the delivery service — operated by Intermountain and San Francisco-based Zipline — will be able to “complete hundreds of deliveries each day and be capable of delivering to approximately 90 percent of patient homes in the region,” according to a news statement Thursday by Intermountain.

Zipline anticipates reaching full delivery capacity over the course of about four years, said Caroline Cammarano, a Zipline spokesperson.

The service will initially target patients within a 50-mile radius of a distribution center in Salt Lake County, with construction set to begin early in 2022, Intermountain officials said. They plan to begin deliveries by midyear.

(Courtesy of Zipline) A Zipline aircraft is shown before a launch at northern California testing facility.

“A number of factors are involved, including construction and [Federal Aviation Administration] approval, but we anticipate that we will be launching first deliveries in spring [of] 2022,” Cammarano said.

The service will launch with deliveries of specialty drugs and equipment.

“Over time, Intermountain Healthcare plans to expand to deliver a range of medications and products, including prescriptions, specialty pharmaceuticals and over-the-counter items,” Thursday’s statement read.

Zipline hasn’t disclosed the location of the distribution center but plans to build it near the Intermountain Supply Chain Center, which is near the border of Midvale and West Jordan.

The drones will parachute deliveries to patients’ homes; Zipline says its drones can accurately drop packages onto an area “about the size of several parking spaces.”

The company has delivered COVID-19 vaccines via drones in Ghana, and blood in Rwanda. Its first U.S. delivery system was in North Carolina, where it began transporting protective gear and other medical supplies to hospitals during the coronavirus pandemic, and said it planned to eventually make home deliveries.

And Walmart this year planned to begin testing drone deliveries with Zipline near the retail giant’s headquarters in Arkansas; a Zipline distribution center was being built in May in the town of Pea Ridge.

But home deliveries in both North Carolina and in Arkansas are awaiting FAA approval, Cammarano said.

Federal regulators also will have to give approval to its plans in Utah before flights can begin.

“We ... expect to have additional details to share in the coming months. When we do, we will be in the position with our partners to quickly launch operations,” Cammarano said.

In spring of 2020, the University of Utah conducted its first test flights for on-campus medical deliveries by drone; with routes linking the U.’s medical facilities and research park, the system was intended to cut down wait times for test results and limit pollution. But the university discontinued its drone delivery operations when the COVID-19 pandemic began, a spokesperson said.

Intermountain’s delivery system would be the first in Utah to send drugs and supplies to patients in their homes.

“There’s so many different reasons someone might end up needing that service: If someone doesn’t have transportation, or whatever medical issue they’re dealing with makes it hard to get around,” said Glen Beebe, Intermountain spokesman.

Zipline’s drones are fixed-wing — like gliders or airplanes — rather than the popular quadcopters, Cammarano said — and they are much quieter.

“If an individual were to be standing under our aircraft as it passes overhead, the decibel level would be comparable to rustling leaves,” she said.

Home deliveries by drones have been in the works for years in retail and medical industries, though most still are in their infancy or waiting to launch. For about four months, Kroger, which owns the Utah-based Smith’s Food and Drug stores, has been making drone deliveries from its store in Centerville, Ohio — but only to destinations within a one-mile radius.

Amazon for years has been projecting it would begin drone deliveries, but the tech publication WIRED reported in August that early attempts in Britain met with challenges, and the service in the U.S. is still in its testing phases.

Walgreens last month unveiled plans for drone deliveries near Fort Worth, but did not disclose when they would begin. A Nevada startup, Flirtey, has been testing drone food deliveries in Reno.

Wing, the world’s largest home-delivery drone operator, has made more than 100,000 deliveries — but those have been concentrated around just three major test sites, in Australia, Finland and Virginia. And Manna, an Irish startup, has been making about 100 deliveries a day in a yearlong trial over about a 2-mile radius in the small town of Oranmore in County Galway.