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UPS details drone plans in federal exemption request

Flight Forward wants to expand its medical deliveries service, Credit: UPS.

Transporting medical samples between hospitals and their support facilities will be the initial market play for UPS [NYSE: UPS] as it expands into drone delivery services, according to plans filed with federal regulators.

The company’s drone unit, UPS Flight Forward, announced plans earlier this year to seek a “Part 135” exemption from Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations to allow it to expand beyond the limited phase of its drone system. Its application, published in the Federal Register on Aug. 22, comes weeks after Amazon [NASDAQ: AMZN] filed for similar regulatory relief for its Amazon Prime Air drone system.

Since March, Flight Forward and its drone partner, Matternet, have been running a drone service for WakeMed hospital in Raleigh, NC. The operation involves transporting blood and medical samples for testing from satellite facilities to a laboratory on WakeMed’s main campus.

Granting the petition, the company stated, will allow it “to continue its work and expand its ability to offer this potentially life-saving service to this hospital network and its patients in North Carolina and elsewhere in the U.S.” Comments on UPS’ exemption petition are due by Sept. 11.

The company said that its initial “Concept of Operations” does not involve deliveries to “ad hoc” locations, nor deliveries to the general public. Data collected from the operation is being analyzed to provide feedback to the FAA that will be used to identify and aid in the development of operating standards.

In its application, Flight Forward explained that WakeMed hospital traditionally used scheduled ground courier services to transport the samples. “However, utilizing a ground courier service that travels on an infrequent schedule causes the lab to be overrun with samples when the ground courier arrives and then lacking samples to test prior to the arrival of the next ground courier delivery,” it stated. This “batch processing” method of delivering medical samples is inefficient and delays a patient’s diagnosis and treatment, according to the company.

Flight Forward uses Matternet’s M2 quadcopter, powered by a rechargeable lithium-ion battery. It can carry medical payloads weighing up to about five pounds over distances of up to 12.5 miles.

“Using [drones] to transport samples across these distances is a much more efficient and timely process, eliminating the batch processing and providing a steady flow of samples to test. The outcome is the facilitation of test results and diagnosis to doctors more rapidly, leading to more timely treatment, and in turn, improved patient health and overall experience,” Flight Forward claimed.

Sending medical supplies and samples by drone is one of six major markets for drone operators and carriers specializing in last-mile delivery. They include California-based Zipline, which is running a service in Ghana, and Everdrone, which has been testing in Gothenburg, Sweden.

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John Gallagher

Based in Washington, D.C., John specializes in regulation and legislation affecting all sectors of freight transportation. He has covered rail, trucking and maritime issues since 1993 for a variety of publications based in the U.S. and the U.K. John began business reporting in 1993 at Broadcasting & Cable Magazine. He graduated from Florida State University majoring in English and business.