MI: U-M to begin prescription drug delivery by drone in 2024

Need a prescription drug? There’s a drone for that.

Starting next year, some Washtenaw County residents will be able to have their prescription medicine delivered by an autonomous electric drone, thanks to a partnership between Michigan Medicine and Zipline, a California-based drone delivery company.

The new, free service will use Zipline’s next-generation drone platform, which can bring medicine directly to patients’ doorsteps and patio tables seven times faster than a person could deliver the drugs by car.

The hope is that the drones will expand access to specialty pharmacy medication for patients with complex and rare diseases and more than double the number of prescriptions Michigan Medicine fills each year through its in-house specialty pharmacy, said Dana Habers, COO for pharmacy and chief innovation officer for Michigan Medicine.

Tens of thousands of prescription drone deliveries expected

Currently, she said, Michigan Medicine fills about 275,000 prescriptions per year to patients outside of the hospital setting. Habers estimated 25% to 30% of them are expected to try drone delivery in the first year.

Drugs defined by the federal government as controlled substances, such as opioids, can’t be delivered by drone, but temperature-controlled medications, such as biologic drugs, can, she said.

“The limitation is really the drugs that we currently deliver through our mail-order pharmacy,” Habers said. “It doesn’t replace our cornerstone or our brick-and-mortar pharmacy footprint. Those will continue to be open and serve the patients’ needs.”

When the drone service launches, it’ll have a range of about a 10-mile radius from Michigan Medicine’s specialty care pharmacy in Dexter, which is slated to open later this year.

“This is innovation. We don’t know what the final end state looks like,” Habers said. “We’re excited to get started with Dexter. … I think from there, if we’re able to expand beyond and continue to extend this to other regions, we would absolutely want to do that.”

Medical delivery drones operate in 7 countries
Zipline’s drones can deliver day or night and through inclement weather, said Conor French, chief regulatory officer for Zipline.

“Our deliveries are extremely fast, quiet, sustainable and, above all else, they’re safe,” he said. “We started delivering blood to health facilities and hospitals in Rwanda in 2016. And since then, have grown to operate in seven countries across three continents, including the United States.

“We’ve flown over 40 million autonomous miles and completed over 500,000 deliveries to customers to date. On average, someone receives a Zipline delivery every 90 seconds. Zipline is trusted by businesses and governments to deliver blood, vaccines, medical supplies, nutritional products, and food among other things. We actually delivered more than 2 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine for Pfizer.”

The sound of a flying drone, French said, is no louder than rustling leaves. Zipline drones will use dual-purpose docks, chargers and loading portals that are to integrate into Michigan Medicine’s new Dexter pharmacy.

“Unlike cars and trucks, our Zips never get stuck in traffic, so you can expect your package on time, every time, down to the second,” French said. “Our system consists of many parts, including loading docks and portals that’ll be integrated into Michigan Medicine’s Dexter facilities and other buildings. It will allow pharmacists to load our delivery droid without leaving the building, sending patients what they need when they need it, right from the pharmacy.

“A pharmacist can load the delivery droid in a matter of seconds. Once loaded, the droid ascends up into the Zip and then automatically flies to his destination where it hovers at about 300 feet. Then the delivery droid descends down to gently place the package down. The droid has thrusters that let it precisely land and maneuver at the exact delivery spot, even in high winds or rain.”

Packages will be able to be tracked in real time, so patients and medical staff will know when it arrives by using the Zipline app or website.

Safety is paramount for us,” French said. “That’s reflected in a track record of over 500,000 commercial deliveries without a single major safety incident. There’s a lot that goes into that.”

Habers said it’s too soon to say exactly when in 2024 the service will launch.

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