UPS Inc. (NYSE:UPS) said today it has begun an unmanned drone service to deliver blood samples across the campus of a North Carolina-based hospital system. This is the first time the U.S. government has approved a drone’s use for routine commercial flights under a contractual agreement, UPS said.
UPS is conducting the service through a joint effort with Matternet, a Menlo Park, California-based start-up which provides autonomous drone technology. The deliveries are being made at WakeMed Health and Hospitals’ flagship hospital and campus in the Raleigh metropolitan area. WakeMed is a 919-bed system with multiple locations across the city. Atlanta-based UPS will provide customer management, oversee operations planning and optimization, and establish standard operating procedures. UPS and Matternet will manage the remote monitoring of the drone flights.
The program is being overseen by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT). The state agency has been active in deploying drones to expand healthcare access to North Carolina residents. Today’s flight is expected to be the first of many daily scheduled flights at the WakeMed Raleigh campus, UPS said.
Under the program, a medical professional will load a drone container with a medical sample or specimen, such as a blood sample, at one of WakeMed’s facilities. The drone, which will be remotely monitored, will fly along a predetermined flight path to a fixed landing pad at WakeMed’s main hospital and central pathology lab. The service will supplement the hospital system’s existing ground delivery network, which doesn’t use UPS equipment, said Kyle Peterson,a UPS spokesman.
The program will utilize Matternet’s battery-powered “M2 quadcopter,” which can carry medical payloads weighing up to about five pounds for up to 12.5 miles, UPS said.
Based on a predetermined route of about 164 yards, a drone can complete a delivery in about three minutes, according to Peterson. By contrast, a ground delivery made by a courier takes at least 15 minutes because the cars operate in a circuit, Peterson said. A ground delivery, in fact, can take several hours depending on the availability of the equipment, he added. The hospital will determine what is loaded into the drone, he said.
The addition of drone transport provides an option for on-demand and same-day delivery, and improves patient outcomes with potentially life-saving benefits, UPS said.
NCDOT began working with Matternet last August to test drones on the WakeMed campus. A three-year FAA program aims to test practical applications of drones by partnering local governments with private sector companies to learn more about how the technology can be incorporated into daily lives.
In 2016, UPS partnered with GAVI and Zipline to deliver blood products to remote locations in Rwanda. Matternet has already completed more than 3,000 flights for healthcare systems in Switzerland.