Zipline and Cleveland Clinic Partner on Prescription Drone Delivery

The alliance represents Zipline’s fourth with a major U.S. health system in 2023, following agreements with Intermountain Healthcare, OhioHealth, and Michigan Medicine.

One of the most highly regarded healthcare providers in the U.S. will soon deliver prescriptions via drone.

Cleveland Clinic, considered one of the top hospital systems in the world based on rankings by outlets such as U.S. News & World Report and Newsweek, is partnering with drone delivery provider Zipline to fly certain medications directly to patients’ porches, patio tables, or front steps starting in 2025.

Deliveries will be made using Zipline’s Platform 2 (P2) delivery system, which is designed to complete 10 sm (8.7 nm) trips to dense, urban areas in about 10 minutes.

The largest drone delivery provider on Earth in terms of sheer volume, Zipline has completed more than 800,000 deliveries of some 8.3 million items to date, per the company’s website. The bulk of these are on-demand healthcare deliveries of cargo such as blood, vaccines, and prescription medications.

Already, Zipline is partnered with several U.S. retailers and healthcare providers, including Walmart, Cardinal Health, and MultiCare Health System. It added agreements with Michigan Medicine, Intermountain Healthcare, and OhioHealth earlier this year. The company currently flies in Arkansas, Utah, and North Carolina, with plans to expand into other states in the months ahead.

Earlier this month, competitor Amazon Prime Air added prescription drone delivery to its service in College Station, Texas, as more firms begin exploring the use case.

“This technology will help us achieve our goal to expand our pharmacy home delivery program and provide easier, quicker access to prescribed medications in our communities,” said Geoff Gates, senior director of supply chain management at Cleveland Clinic.

Starting next year, Cleveland Clinic will coordinate with local government officials to check its compliance with safety and technical requirements for launching the drone delivery service. It will also begin to install Zipline docks and loading portals at locations in northeast Ohio, mostly facilities at its main campus in Cleveland and in nearby Beechwood.

Initially, the service will deliver specialty medications and other prescriptions—which typically would be shipped via ground delivery—from more than a dozen Cleveland Clinic locations. Eventually, it’s expected to offer emergency or “rush” prescriptions, lab samples, prescription meals, medical and surgical supplies, and items for “hospital-at-home” services.

Cleveland Clinic has been lauded for its supply chain (for which it earned the top spot on Gartner’s 2021 ranking) and innovative use of technology, in particular. That makes it somewhat unsurprising that the hospital system would add an emerging technology like drone delivery, which is already changing the healthcare landscape in regions such as Africa. Zipline’s drones, for example, have delivered blood, vaccines, and other medical supplies in Rwanda since 2016.

“We are always looking for solutions that are cost effective, reliable and reduce the burden of getting medications to our patients,” said Bill Peacock, chief of operations at Cleveland Clinic. “Not only are deliveries via drone more accurate and efficient, the technology we are utilizing is environmentally friendly. The drones are small, electric, and use very little energy for deliveries.”

Zipline’s P2 drones, or Zips, include a detachable delivery “droid.” The droid docks on loading portals that can be installed directly on buildings, sliding back and forth between the building’s interior and exterior through a small opening—like a fast-food restaurant employee handing off meals through a drive-thru window.

When a prescription is ready to be delivered, a Cleveland Clinic technician will load the droid, which can carry up to 8 pounds of cargo. The small capsule then slides out of the window, undocks from the loading portal, and docks with the Zip, all on its own.

The drones will cruise at around 70 mph (61 knots) at an altitude near 300 feet, and customers will be able to track their orders in real time. Once it arrives at the delivery address, the Zip will deploy the droid, which uses a mix of onboard perception technology and electric fans to quietly and precisely steer itself to a dropoff point as small as a patio table. The Zip will then fly back to a Cleveland Clinic site and dock itself.

“Zipline has been focused on improving access to healthcare for eight years,” said Keller Rinaudo Cliffton, co-founder and CEO of Zipline. “We’re thrilled to soon bring fast, sustainable, and convenient delivery to Cleveland Clinic patients.”

Zipline announced P2 in March, but the system is not yet in action. However, the company expects the new hardware and software will enable quicker, quieter deliveries. 

In addition to the upgraded Zips, easier integrations with retailers, and other technology upgrades, a big benefit of P2 will be flexibility. The new drones will be able to fly up to 24 miles in a single direction and land on any dock in the network, allowing Zipline to send additional capacity to locations experiencing high volume (or divert it from sites that aren’t).

Already, the firm has several P2 customers lined up, including the government of Rwanda, Michigan Medicine, MultiCare, and American restaurant chain Sweetgreen. It will continue to deploy its Platform 1 (P1) system—which airdrops packages using a parachute—for certain clients.

Zipline is one of five U.S. drone delivery companies—the others being Prime Air, UPS Flight Forward, Alphabet’s Wing, and Causey Aviation Unmanned, a longtime partner of Israel’s Flytrex—to receive Part 135 air carrier certification from the FAA. The firm’s approval authorizes commercial operations spanning up to 26 sm (22.5 nm), including beyond the visual line of sight (BVLOS) of the pilot.

In September, Zipline obtained an FAA BVLOS exemption for its services in Utah and Arkansas with P1. The waiver allows the company to remove visual observers from those routes, which it said it will begin doing later this year. Three other firms, including Flight Forward, received similar permissions.

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