Zipline, MultiCare partner for medical deliveries to hospitals, doctors by drone

Zipline added MultiCare to its list of partners using drone delivery for medical shipments to hospitals, labs and doctors’ offices.

The partnership marks the state of Washington’s first use of commercial drone delivery. Zipline’s autonomous aircrafts will transport an array of medical supplies including lab samples, medications and test kits to facilities within the MultiCare network. 

“Making sure our providers have what they need when they need it is a critical part of providing affordable and accessible care to patients,” Florence Chang, president of MultiCare, said in a statement included in the company's press release. “We are always looking for like-minded partners who can help us improve the care we provide to the communities we serve in a sustainable and reliable way.”

MultiCare is a not-for-profit healthcare organization with its nascency tied to Tacoma’s first hospital in 1882. Drones are expected to begin delivering to Tacoma facilities in 2024 pending regulatory approvals and expanding to the Pacific Northwest over the next two years. 

“We intend to work together with MultiCare for the long-term,” said Conor French, Zipline's general counsel, in an email to Fierce Healthcare. “Right now, we’re focused on streamlining operations and elevating patient care here in Tacoma. As our partnership continues, we will work closely with MultiCare to address any additional needs that arise.”

MultiCare pegs itself as the largest community-based locally governed health system in the state of Washington. With 20,000 employees, 11 hospitals and a comprehensive system of primary care, urgent care and specialty services, it is the largest multi-speciality clinic in the Inland Northwest region. 

“Our instant delivery solution helps doctors create a better experience for their patients; no delays, missed appointments or unnecessary stress and hassle. At the same time, the healthcare system grows stronger, more reliable and more efficient,” said Keller Rinaudo, co-founder and CEO of Zipline. “In many parts of the world, this solution is an integral, routine part of healthcare, and we’re proud to partner with MultiCare to bring the same standard to Washington.”

Zipline has announced previous partnerships with U.S.-based organizations such as Magellan Rx Management, Novant Health and Cardinal Health all in North Carolina along with Walmart in Pea Ridge, Arkansas. 

In November, Zipline teed off a first-of-its-kind partnership with Intermountain Healthcare to deliver prescriptions and medical supplies to patients in the Salt Lake City metro area. The operation is expected to grow over a multi-year period to ultimately complete hundreds of deliveries each day and be capable of delivering to approximately 90% of patient homes in the region, executives said.

As Zipline expands its footprint state-side, its stronghold continues to be the international locations where it first began its work. Two years after its founding in 2014, drones were used to deliver blood in Rwanda. Zipline then partnered with Pfizer and BioNTech to transport one million mRNA COVID-19 vaccines in Ghana. Toyota Tsusho also recently announced a partnership with the drone giant to deliver medical and pharmaceutical supplies in remote areas of Japan. 

“For over five years now, we've seen Zipline demonstrate their effectiveness at transforming health care systems to make them more accessible, equitable and sustainable,” said Bradd Busick, MultiCare's senior vice president and chief information officer in an email to Fierce Healthcare. “Having already proven their system at scale internationally, we knew Zipline was a solution that could not only adapt to fit our unique needs but also help us build a better experience and provide an even higher quality of care for our health care providers and patients.”

Ecological concerns expand the drone delivery market 

The World Economic Forum has warned that urban last-mile delivery is expected to grow 78% by 2030, meaning 36% more delivery vehicles on the road in the world's top 100 cities. With health outcomes of Co2 emissions looking increasingly grim, drones may expand health benefits beyond dropping medication at patients’ doors. 

“Our drones take deliveries off the road and replace fossil fuel-intensive trucks with small, lightweight, electric aircraft that can reach their destination on demand,” French said. “Not only do we provide a more efficient and accessible model for delivery, it’s one that is better for the planet—by our internal calculations, our deliveries produce up to 96% less emissions than traditional delivery methods.” 

Zipline is currently the world’s largest automated on-demand delivery service and reports that every 4 minutes one of its drones takes off. That time is now expected to shrink since the company received FAA Part 135 air carrier certification in June, allowing Zipline drones to complete the longest range on-demand commercial drone deliveries in the U.S. 

Zipline joined four other companies in being recognized as a small air carrier by the Federal Aviation Administration. In April 2019, UPS Flight Forward Inc. was the first company to receive a Part 135 certification. UPS partnered with CVS Health in October of the same year to explore uses of drone technology including delivering prescriptions and retail products. 

Google-affiliated Wing Aviation LLC was the second company to join the U.S. market with deliveries in Christiansburg, Virginia in 2019. The company announced its expansion to the Dallas-Fort Worth area in April through a partnership with drugstore giant Walgreens. Wing stated the partnership will mark the first commercial drone delivery service in a major U.S. metropolitan area. 

According to a Virginia Tech Economic Impact Study cited by Wing in a press release, Co2 output could be decreased by up to 113,900 tons per year if drone delivery is used at scale in an average-sized U.S. metro area. That’s the equivalent of taking a whopping 25,565 cars off the road or planting 46,000 acres of new forest.

Amazon took its slice of the pie in August 2020 by focusing on non-medical retail deliveries in parts of Oregon and California. While the online retail giant has been slow to join the market, just this week it announced an expansion to the Texas A&M University town of College Station, citing the use of drone technology to help “reduce the impact of climate change on future generations.” 

Zipline also trumpeted the advantages of instant delivery logistics by emphasizing the strain placed on supply chains due to climate change. In its recent announcement, it cited data tying drone technology to more efficient routing, decreased energy usage and more efficient electrification of drones in comparison to ground-based vehicles.