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COVID-19 fast-tracks N. Carolina Zipline, Matternet, Flytrex drone deliveries

What’s been a slow rollout of drone delivery programs in the US has just sped up in the COVID-19 era. The North Carolina Department of Transportation just announced test programs with three leading companies in the nascent drone delivery industry.

The programs, slated to begin sometime in May, are all in response to the needs of the COVID-19 pandemic. Two are in conjunction with medical facilities, and one is a pilot food-delivery program to enable social distancing.

Three drone delivery projects in North Carolina

In Charlotte, North Carolina, Zipline will deliver personal protective equipment (such as masks) around the campuses of the Novant Health medical network. This represents a significant step for Zipline, a US-based company that has had its greatest success far from home. In 2016, the company began using its airplane-style drones to deliver blood to rural clinics in Rwanda. In 2019, it expanded to Ghana. All told, Zipline has flown over 35,000 missions in Africa, including a new service to collect COVID-19 test samples. But it’s yet to get a foothold in its home territory, where the regulatory environment is less friendly to autonomous delivery services.

Next up, drone company Matternet will take to the skies in Raleigh and the town of Garner. This takes advantage of an existing partnership between Matternet and UPS, which recently won FAA Part 135 certification to operate as a drone airline. The companies have previously made medical deliveries on WakeMed’s campus in Raleigh. Now it appears that the service will expand to runs between WakeMed’s main hospital in Raleigh and its Healthplex in Garner. The drones will deliver non-COVID-19-related supplies, in order to free up delivery drivers to focus on the pandemic.

Lastly, Flytrex will make food deliveries from several restaurants in a shopping center to nearby neighborhoods in the town of Holly Springs. (This resembles new food delivery services that Wing is providing in Virginia.)

Applying drone delivery lessons to the rest of the country

The drone companies and their partners will be funding all three projects. The North Carolina Department of Transportation is providing oversight. The goal is to take lessons from these operations and expand them to droner delivery efforts across the country.

“North Carolina has been a leader in demonstrating how drones can help people in times of crisis,” said State Transportation Secretary Eric Boyette in a statement. “We look forward to putting this technology into productive use as we work to help citizens and medical professionals during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Normally the announcement of just one such delivery program in the US would be significant news. But the COVID-19 battle is pushing businesses and governments to be more inventive in how they employ technology. And drones continue to take a central role in these efforts. One upshot of the crisis appears to be an erosion of barriers to the commercial drone industry on the US.

Photo: Zipline



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Sean Captain is a Bay Area technology, science, and policy journalist. Follow him on Twitter @SeanCaptain.