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Silicon Valley-based Zipline is to deliver medical supplies by drone for the UK’s NHS in a pioneering move that is meant to cut costs and improve services to hundreds of thousands of patients.
The world’s largest drone logistics service expects to deliver medical and surgical supplies to more than 30 NHS hospitals and clinics in the north of England in the second half of next year. Its fixed-wing drones can travel up to 130 miles and parachute packages on to landing zones.
Zipline has allied with the Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust, which is responsible for providing care to more than 500,000 people across Northumberland and North Tyneside, and UK logistics company Apian to build on a drone trial held earlier this year.
The partnership “is an opportunity to try to improve experiences for the hundreds of thousands of people we serve”, Sir James Mackey, the trust’s outgoing chief executive, said. “We hope it will help reduce cancelled appointments and supply chain complexities, while saving money for our healthcare system.” The trust last week said it had appointed Birju Bartoli to replace Mackey.
Drones can be in the air within two minutes of receiving a request, Zipline said, cutting delivery times by hours and allowing for more effective use of inventory, particularly in an area such as the one served by the Northumbria trust, geographically one of the largest in England’s NHS.
San Francisco-based Zipline is awaiting final regulatory approval for the service from the Civil Aviation Authority.
The partnership to supply a drone service comes as the NHS is seeking ways to cut costs and improve services as it faces one of its toughest winters, with figures showing people waiting for about 7.7mn non-emergency appointments.
The trust has been conscious of potential concerns about noise and safety, said Andrew Edmunds, its director of innovation.
The trial scheme, run by Apian in February and May, initially drew criticism over the closure of local airspace, with pilots and airstrip owners warning that a “temporary danger area” would hit their operations, prompting Apian to revise its plans.
“This is where we come back to doing things by the book, following the process and being totally consistent with the regulations,” Edmunds said. “It’s natural that there are going to be questions about new technology,” he added.
Zipline’s move into the UK is the latest expansion for the US drone delivery company, which includes Cleveland Clinic, Intermountain Healthcare and Walmart among its partners.
The company, which at its latest funding round this year was reported to have a $4.2bn valuation, counts Sequoia Capital, Andreessen Horowitz, Baillie Gifford, Temasek and Fidelity among its backers.
Keller Rinaudo Cliffton, Zipline’s chief executive, pointed to a “crazy explosion of demand”, especially in the US, for its next generation platform, which uses a “droid” attached to a drone that hovers at an altitude of about 300 feet and can deliver a package to areas as small as the front step of a home. Zipline plans to introduce that service to the UK at a later stage.
The company received clearance in 2023 from the US Federal Aviation Administration to carry out flights “beyond visual line of sight”, waiving a requirement to have humans on the ground monitoring each flight.
Zipline has helped to ease the transition of healthcare systems to an automated instant drone delivery process, driven in part by disruption from the Covid-19 pandemic, Rinaudo Cliffton said.
The company now serves 3,000 hospitals and health facilities globally and has delivered more than 14mn vaccine doses over the past few years, he added. It recently passed 60mn miles of autonomous flights with zero safety incidents. “And this is all using autonomous, zero-emission aircraft that are 10 times as fast and half the cost.”
Zipline, founded in 2014, now operates in several countries in Africa as well as the US and Japan. Apian was founded by former NHS doctors and operates a platform for the NHS to place orders with Zipline.
With additional reporting by Sarah Neville