NEWS

Drones Could Soon Deliver Medications to Your Home

Drone delivery.

Flavio Coelho / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • Zipline, a leading drone operator, is partnering with two healthcare companies to deliver prescription medications directly to patients’ homes.
  • This effort is set to take place in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Salt Lake City upon approval from the Federal Aviation Administration.
  • There are concerns over drone delivery including safety, theft, weather conditions, and cost.

Certain cities in the United States could soon be seeing something new in the sky: drones with a mission to deliver prescription medicines to patients’ homes.

Zipline, a leading drone manufacturer and operator is teaming up with two healthcare companies—Magellan Health and Intermountain Healthcare—to deliver prescription medications and other medical supplies right to people’s homes using a drone.

According to Zipline, drone deliveries are set to start this year in Charlotte, North Carolina, and there are future plans to serve communities in Salt Lake City upon approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

Okeoma Moronu, JD, the head of aviation regulatory and legal affairs at Zipline, told Verywell in an email that Zipline and Walmart are already delivering over-the-counter health and wellness products in North Arkansas. 

“We’re working to expand this service,” Moronu said. “We work closely with the FAA on all needed approvals for safe, clean, quiet, and reliable operations.”

The battery-operated drones can make deliveries in about 30 minutes on average, versus the hours or days traditional methods often take. Zipline customers will have the option to get their medications in less than 15 minutes.

“Light, clean, electric, aerial delivery has incredible benefits,” Moronu said. “Autonomous aircraft is also much more sustainable than traditional delivery methods, reducing energy per package by about 96% while taking unnecessary delivery vehicles off our streets.” 

The company first began its effort in 2016, delivering blood in Rwanda and eventually other medical supplies to Ghana. Earlier on in the pandemic, Zipline partnered with Novant Health to deliver personal protective equipment to frontline health care workers in North Carolina. Since then, the company has made more than 250,000 commercial deliveries, transporting almost two million medical products—including 650,000 COVID-19 vaccines.

Moronu said they continue to operate in these counties and plan to expand their system into Nigeria, Côte d’Ivoire, and Japan over the course of 2022. 

But as drone delivery operations continue to expand in different countries, how safe, reliable and realistic will this effort be in the U.S.? Here’s what you need to know.

Benefits of Drone Medical Delivery 

According to Moronu, virtual appointments skyrocketed during the pandemic—but patients still had to venture out in-person to a pharmacy to pick up any medications prescribed. This can make it difficult for patients with chronic health conditions or lack of transportation.

Drone delivery can provide patients with necessary medications to treat chronic or complex conditions on their own schedules, without ever having to leave their homes.

Sachiko Ozawa, PhD, MHS, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina School of Pharmacy with a background in public health, told Verywell this type of operation can also be beneficial in remote rural areas where transportation may be particularly costly or time-consuming.

“The drones would be able to deliver medications above any geographic barriers where the terrain may be inaccessible or difficult to traverse, such as mountainous areas, wetlands or islands, therefore improving medication access,” Ozawa said.

Others believe drones can be more efficient and faster at delivering medications for patients who have urgent medical needs or strict medication schedules.

“There can be a delivery delay when using shipping mail delivery, where an acute medication that should be used immediately, may not arrive until a few days after its intended start date,” Cathi Dennehy, PharmD, a health sciences clinical professor of pharmacy at the University of California San Francisco School of Pharmacy, told Verywell. “Other advantages of drone delivery include rapid delivery time, energy conservation, reduced location limitations, safer delivery system and time saved as compared to physical in-person delivery.”

Drawbacks and Concerns

While there are clear benefits and advantages to using drones to deliver medications, there are also some drawbacks and questions.

Ozawa questions how medications will be properly stored if they require specific temperature and humidity controls to assure their quality. However, in 2021, Zipline partnered with Pfizer to complete the first long-range drone delivery of the COVID-19 vaccines, which must be stored at extremely cold temperatures. This marks an advancement in navigating these challenges.

Dennehy adds disadvantages of such an operation may include:

  • Equipment failure
  • Costs of the drone itself
  • The need to train and maintain technical staff to operate the device
  • Possible theft or damage to equipment and patient-specific medications

“If a drone were to have an equipment failure or to be tampered with, causing it to fall from the sky, then theft and possibility of privacy risk would be a concern,” Dennehy said. “There is also a concern for the number of drones flying at any given time on air space and flight path.”

While the experts we spoke to cite safety and technical support as concerns for drone usage across the pharmaceutical industry, a spokesperson for Zipline states that the company has completed more than 250,000 commercial deliveries without a safety incident and implements strict quality control measures to account for issues like temperature regulation.

Weather-related factors also pose a challenge for this type of operation. Both Ozawa and Dennehy explain battery capabilities, drone propeller function, and sufficient fuel to travel a certain distance could all be risks to flying a drone in below freezing or excessively hot temperatures.

As claimed by Zipline, they’ve designed drones that are capable of flying in a wide range of conditions, including at night, in hot and cold temperatures, and high wind and rain. Drones also don’t land at people’s homes but parachute packages into a patient’s front yard, backyard, driveway, or similar location.

“Patients and customers can choose the precise window they want their packages delivered in, so they know exactly when to go out and collect it,” Moronu added.

Another big disadvantage of drone delivery would be bypassing the ability for patients to speak directly with their pharmacist about any questions or concerns regarding their medications.

“As a pharmacist, I still have many patients that I care for in the clinic who like to pick up their medications from their local pharmacy and speak to their pharmacist—for answers to their medication questions and education about the medication,” Lisa Kroon, PharmD, professor and department chair at the University of California San Francisco School of Pharmacy, told Verywell in an email. 

There are also concerns about price and affordability. How much will the delivery cost patients? How will insurance handle these costs? And what happens if the drones get into accidents? Answers to these questions are still being hashed out.

What This Means For You

Drones could soon be delivering prescription medication and other medical needs to people in the U.S. While there are several benefits to this type of operation, more information is needed to determine costs and safety.

Expectations and Next Steps 

How realistic and useful will this operation be in the U.S.? According to Kroon, timely access to medications is less of a challenge in the U.S., since most Americans live pretty close to a pharmacy. She said it’s estimated that nearly nine in 10 Americans live within five miles of a community pharmacy.

“There are rural areas where access to a pharmacist is limited but it’s difficult to predict how popular this would be,” Kroon said.

Ozawa adds drone delivery medications may work in remote areas where there is a niche need but believes it would be more efficient and safe to use traditional modes of transport in urban areas.

While this operation is realistic, Kroon said it will require the involvement of multiple federal agencies including the FAA, Federal Trade Commission, Food and Drug Administration, Drug Enforcement Agency, and the Department of Health and Human Services.

Drone medical delivery operations can offer benefits for consumers and healthcare facilities under certain circumstances, especially in locations that have limited access to supplies. But many experts believe, like with all new things, it should be piloted and studied more to see its benefits and limitations.

Correction - February 16, 2022: This article was updated to clarify the regulation of drone medical delivery and its storage capabilities.

By Alyssa Hui
Alyssa Hui is a St. Louis-based health and science news writer. She was the 2020 recipient of the Midwest Broadcast Journalists Association Jack Shelley Award.