US-based Novant Health, which operates 15 hospitals, has launched an emergency drone operation as part of its Covid-19 pandemic response.

The long-range drone logistics flights initiative has been introduced in alliance with on-demand logistics service Zipline, which agreed to provide drone flight services.

Novant Health launched the operation under the Unmanned Aircraft System Integration Pilot Program (IPP) of the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT). The initiative secured authorisation from the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

As part of the operation, the hospital system will provide contactless distribution of personal protective equipment (PPE) and certain medical supplies to its frontline medical teams in the Charlotte, North Carolina.

The operation is expected to aid Novant Health’s pandemic response and could enable other uses such as testing, drug trials and vaccine distribution in the future.

Novant Health executive vice-president and chief digital and technology officer Angela Yochem said: “The Covid-19 pandemic has tasked us with being even more nimble and innovative in how we solve complex challenges.

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“Fast-tracking our medical drone transport capability is just one example of how we’re pioneering in the health care industry, which is known for being resistant to change.”

Over the coming two years, the hospital system in partnership with Zipline plans to expand emergency operations in the Charlotte region to regular commercial operations.

Subject to FAA approval, the expansion is intended to serve health facilities and patients’ homes in the state.

Zipline CEO Keller Rinaudo said: “Using contactless drone logistics will be an important tool in that effort. The work underway here in North Carolina will provide the rest of the country with a blueprint for how to build the most resilient and responsive health care system possible.”

This announcement comes days after Lorn and Islands Hospital in Oban, Scotland agreed to host a drone delivery trial for National Health Service (NHS) to support Covid-19 response in the UK.