Medicine dropping from the sky? Drone deliveries begin in Utah

Fixed-wing aircraft will drop parachutes at homes starting in South Jordan, with plans to expand to entire Salt Lake Valley.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A Zipline drone drops a package during a demonstration in South Jordan on Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2022.

This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identify solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.

[Subscribe to our newsletter here]

The long awaited era of drone delivery has arrived in Utah with an initial rollout that allows patients in South Jordan to get their pharmaceuticals and over-the-counter medications by parachute drop.

Intermountain Healthcare has partnered with Zipline, and they have started launching fixed-wing drones that can carry up to four pounds per delivery. The aircraft are launched from a distribution center built on top of the Trans-Jordan Landfill in the southwest corner of the Salt Lake Valley. That facility has no runway. Instead the drones are launched from a slingshot-like launcher and retrieved at the same location by an arresting line that snags the craft as it passes over.

“From a logistics perspective, it will be a game changer for us broadly,” said Allison Corry, vice president of support services at Intermountain. “This is not future technology. This is here and available to us at this moment.”

Corry said during the first phase the deliveries will be limited to specialty pharmaceuticals and certain over-the-counter medications, but in time both the product line and the service area will expand.

The service is available to anyone in South Jordan. They can go to flyzipline.com/utah to sign up. Once it is determined they are in the eligible area, they will be given access to a website where they can order over-the-counter products or prescription medications. The deliveries must stay under a maximum weight of four pounds, and controlled narcotics won’t be available for drone delivery.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kaleb Stanton and Jada Connor prep a Zipline drone for flight at the company's distribution center in South Jordan on Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2022.

Corry said during this phase Intermountain is covering all the costs of drone delivery, but ultimately they anticipate drone delivery won’t be more expensive than ground delivery.

“Longer term, we think it will be more cost advantageous. We think this will be part of our normal network and be cost competitive with what we’re doing these days,” she said, adding “Ziplines don’t take vacations, and they don’t stop for traffic lights.”

It will also clean the air. Zipline estimates its electric-powered drone flights produce 98% less pollution than transporting by gas-powered vehicle.

After the initial phase in South Jordan, Zipline has FAA approval to fly up to 50 miles from its facility at Trans-Jordan. Within five years, they expect to be serving a million people in the Salt Lake Valley. The drones can stay in the air for a maximum of two hours per flight, and only one delivery is made per flight.

Intermountain’s pharmacy currently makes about 400 deliveries a day, six days a week, so the drones will become a common sight. They also can fly at night.

Zipline started in 2016 delivering blood to remote hospitals in Rwanda. “Women were dying of postpartum hemorrhaging in rural communities,” said Conor French, Zipline’s chief regulatory officer. “We were able to deliver blood in a matter of minutes, or at most an hour.”

The South San Francisco-based company later expanded into Ghana, and it is currently delivering throughout both African nations. It also has a distribution center in Japan and Nigeria, and it is setting up centers in Kenya and Côte d’Ivoire. It has made more than 400,000 flights covering more than 28-million miles.

Utah is the third U.S. state for Zipline deliveries. In North Carolina, Zipline has partnered with three health care companies to deliver medicine and supplies, and it has partnered with Walmart to deliver retail goods, including food, to an area around Walmart’s Bentonville, Ark., headquarters.

Zipline considers itself an “instant logistics” company, meaning it is not just flying drones, French said. It also is handling things like inventory management. The South Jordan facility includes refrigerated rooms where perishable medicines can be stored for quick dispersal.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A Zipline drone drops a package during a demonstration in South Jordan on Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2022.

Fixed-wing drones, which travel around 60 mph, have one key advantage over helicopter-type drones: they are much quieter. They are battery-powered, and the propellers are designed to reduce noise. But with no ability to hover or make vertical landings, they have to drop payloads by parachute. The company says it can accurately land packages in an area the size of a backyard or driveway. Zipline has a recycling program for the parachute and box.

The drones are required to stay under 400 feet off the ground, and the drops happen from about 90 feet above the ground. In a demonstration Tuesday, a Zipline drone circled the landfill before dropping a package near the launch facility. The package bounced a couple of feet when it landed, but the cookies inside did not crumble.

While Zipline has been operating in the United States since 2020, it only recently received FAA approval for “beyond the visual line of sight” flights. The drones are operated by a pilot on the ground, and this approval means the pilots do not have to see the drones during the entire flight. Instead they can rely on instruments to navigate and avoid obstacles. One pilot is allowed to fly more than one drone at a time.

French said the company has never had a crash, but it has had mechanical failures that require the pilot to abort the flight and deploy a parachute so the drone will drift to the ground.