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Can drones be the aspirin for pharma supply chain headaches?

How 3 companies plan to integrate air logistics into the health system

An employee of the U.K.'s National Health Service loads a drone with medical supplies (Photo: Skyports)

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, health care workers have been under siege. Supply chain disruptions have limited access to everything from personal protective equipment to vaccines for both COVID-related illnesses and familiar diseases like the flu, at a time when the globe needs them most.

Seeing those disruptions, a trio of companies — Melbourne, Australia-based Swoop Aero, London’s Skyports and Kelberg, Germany-headquartered BD Rowa — are joining forces to open up an air-based avenue for medical and pharmaceutical deliveries. The three companies announced Monday that they would combine air logistics expertise with health care-oriented technology to add a network of delivery drones to global health supply chains.

Swoop Aero and Skyports, two global leaders in drone technology, will integrate their solutions into BD Rowa’s infrastructure of automated technology for the health care and pharmaceutical industries, which includes robots that can automatically pick and dispense medications. The company also recently added a last-mile delivery network.

“We were impressed with Swoop Aero’s technology and the impact they and Skyports were having deploying it in global markets in conjunction with major players in the health care industry. It was clear early on that we shared common ground,” said Mario Ulrich, global industry leader of pharmaceutical distribution centers for BD Rowa.

The technology from Swoop Aero with which Ulrich is so enamored includes self-piloting drones that specialize in contactless deliveries for pathology, pharmaceuticals, vaccines and urgent blood. The aircraft are supported by a tech-based infrastructure that enables real-time location tracking and temperature monitoring for cold chain networks.

“There are so many touch points along the journey pharmaceutical products take from the point of manufacture to the point of patient care. Deploying technology at any one of these provides opportunities to improve health care system outcomes,” said Swoop Aero CEO and co-founder Eric Peck. “By seamlessly integrating sustainable air logistics to deliver medical supplies, we have already seen significant improvements to access to medicine through our operations.”



Watch: A true platform for drone delivery


Swoop Aero’s solution is particularly useful for accessing remote or hard-to-reach communities. The company’s technology maps earthquakes, floods, wildfires and volcanic eruptions and provides live video monitoring feeds to assess safe landing areas and aid in search and rescue efforts. The drones can also be integrated into a company’s existing logistics network and are even able to fly to and from ships at anchor, connecting land- and sea-based operations.

Skyports, in contrast, is more focused on building the infrastructure that supports drone flights. Leveraging Swoop Aero’s technology in partnership with the U.K.’s National Health Service and Royal Mail, as well as with FedEx (NYSE: FDX) in Ireland, Skyports builds and operates landing sites for drones, which it calls vertiports. The sites resemble miniature airports, but they are designed to be accessible to all vehicle types.

Currently, Skyports operates three vertiports. Its main location in London services Europe and the Middle East, while its Singapore site covers the Asia-Pacific region and its Los Angeles location reaches customers in the Americas. Alex Brown, Skyports’ director of drone services, sees the company’s vertiports as one of the keys to unlocking the global health supply chain.

“We already know the power that drone logistics can bring to health care settings from our work with the NHS in the U.K., transporting pathology samples and COVID-19 tests,” Brown remarked. “In just the U.K. to date, we have saved over 12,000 hours of patient waiting time, meaning that patients can start treatment sooner and get on with their lives. 

“With this partnership with BD Rowa,” he added, “we’re bringing drone delivery to the pharmaceutical sector to provide speed, frequency and reliability to patients located in hard-to-reach communities across the U.K., Europe and the Middle East.”

Skyports, like Swoop Aero, has its own fleet of delivery drones that can deliver medical supplies to hard-to-reach places. The company offers two kinds of deliveries — maritime-focused deliveries, including ship to shore, and rural-focused deliveries that are cheaper and faster than a typical ground-based delivery network.

Drones in the health care system aren’t new, but they’re still in a nascent stage. Drone delivery provider Zipline is often viewed as a leader in the space, having started humanitarian drone missions as early as 2016 in Rwanda, where it delivered supplies like medicines and blood. 


Read: Zipline’s drone delivery of pharmaceuticals earns $2.75B valuation

Read: Wingcopter inks $16M deal with Spright for US medical drone deliveries


Since then, the company has expanded its operations globally, even bringing its drone delivery network to the U.S. in states like North Carolina and Utah. Zipline’s U.S. presence includes a partnership with Walmart (NYSE: WMT), which launched in November, enabling drone delivery of health and wellness products in Arkansas.

Wingcopter is another drone delivery company that has cemented itself in the health care space. In January, it announced a partnership with unmanned aerial vehicle services provider Spright to supply a “large fleet” of its drones that will be used to enable instant deliveries of medical supplies, such as PPE and lab samples, to rural, underserved and hard-to-reach areas.

Unlike those partnerships, the collaboration between Swoop Aero and Skyports will include a company in BD Rowa that is focused entirely on the health care and pharmaceutical industries. 

“Next-level thinking is to look outside your immediate field of focus, at what other leading providers are doing in the supply chain, and explore opportunities where collaboration can create more value,” said Swoop Aero’s Peck. “BD Rowa has a strong pedigree in developing automated storing and dispensing solutions for wholesalers, pharmacies, hospitals and patients. We are looking forward to working with them to augment the value they bring to health systems by integrating autonomous air logistics.”

Monday’s announcement comes on the heels of another partnership for Swoop Aero, a collaboration with global satellite communications provider Iridium that was revealed last week. Swoop Aero will leverage Iridium’s connectivity architecture to enable operations in remote regions, which often lack a strong communications infrastructure.

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Jack Daleo

Jack is a staff writer for FreightWaves and Modern Shipper covering topics like last mile delivery and e-commerce fulfillment. He studied at Northwestern University, majoring in journalism with a certificate in integrated marketing communications. Previously, Jack has written for Backpacker Magazine and enjoys travel, the outdoors, and all things basketball.
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