On the Friday before Memorial Day, a six-foot long, red-and-white drone took off from a field in Kannapolis, North Carolina, flew fifteen miles west over suburban Charlotte to Novant Health’s Huntersville Medical Center, and dropped a box of protective masks in a designated spot next to the parking lot. The flight, about 30 minutes round-trip, marked the first U.S. delivery for Zipline Inc., a California drone start-up that has been transporting medical supplies in Rwanda and Ghana since 2016. It is, Zipline says, the longest commercial drone delivery route in the country.
Zipline’s U.S. debut comes almost six months ahead of schedule. The company had planned to begin service in North Carolina in October, under an agreement signed at the beginning of this year with Novant Health, which runs fifteen hospitals and nearly 700 clinics in the area. Zipline and Novant decided to accelerate their plans after the Coronavirus outbreak. “It was very much a toe in the water sort of thing,” said Angela Yochem, chief digital and technology officer at Novant, “Then this crisis hit.”