USA – Cardinal Health Inc. intends to test the use of drones to expedite the delivery of pills, inhalers, and other items to U.S. pharmacies, a move that the healthcare-supplies distributor claims will also reduce transportation costs for time-critical shipments.

The pilot program with drone operator Zipline International Inc. would begin next year outside Charlotte, pending Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approval, the companies said.

Aerial drones with 11-foot wingspans could transport loads weighing up to four pounds in 15 to 30 minutes from a Zipline distribution center in Kannapolis, to local pharmacies.

Cardinal Health’s first foray into drone deliveries, which the Dublin, Ohio-based distributor sees as a way to avoid inventory delays and volatile last-minute shipping prices.

It comes on the heels of previous efforts by companies such as United Parcel Service Inc., Merck & Co., and Walmart Inc. to test the use of drones for domestic shipment of medical products and supplies.

Cardinal Health’s senior vice president of pharmaceutical operations, Josh Dolan, stated that drone delivery would allow the company to avoid roadblocks such as natural disasters and help replenish high-turnover items.

He believes it will eventually be useful for emergency situations in remote areas or when time is of the essence, such as delivering antivenom for snake bites.

While speed and reliability are the primary reasons Cardinal Health is interested in drone delivery, the flights would also allow the company to avoid price fluctuations for last-minute courier or helicopter deliveries, according to Mr. Dolan.

Furthermore, the company hopes to eventually expand the program to more products and regions, which would also be subject to (FAA) approvals.

Zipline, has used aerial drones to deliver medical supplies to remote parts of Africa, including Rwanda and Ghana, where it recently delivered the coronavirus vaccine developed by Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE.

According to Conor French, Zipline’s general counsel, the company is expanding its drone deliveries in the United States and elsewhere.

It has announced agreements to deliver merchandise for Walmart in northwest Arkansas as well as prescriptions and medical supplies for the Salt Lake City-based hospital system Intermountain Healthcare.

The program with Cardinal Health would employ six-foot-long drones that resemble miniature planes from head to tail. They’d fly 300 to 400 feet above the ground over a variety of terrains, dropping packages with parachutes into landing zones about the size of two parking spaces.

Zipline’s drones have a round-trip range of up to 100 miles, or 50 miles from the distribution center. The company is still working out routes with aviation regulators.

Cardinal Health intends to stock and replenish products on a daily basis from its distribution center in Greensboro, North Carolina, about an hour away.

According to Mr. French, Zipline’s agreement with Cardinal Health is “similar to what we’re doing internationally,” while declining to divulge the financial details of the arrangements.

Zipline was granted an FAA waiver last year to transport protective equipment and supplies from the Kannapolis site to Novant Health, a North Carolina health system.

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