UPS Launches Medical Drone Transports, Explores Vaccine Deliveries

Laboratory technician prepares a sample to be shipped via drone

UPS is using its innovative style and customer-centric, efficient operations to make waves in healthcare; this could mean lower costs and improved patient outcomes for the healthcare industry.

The shipping giant is partnering with Matternet, a drone company, to launch a logistics service for medical sample transportation and delivery by autonomous drone. The program, hosted on the WakeMed campus in Raleigh, North Carolina, is being overseen by the North Carolina Department of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

This is the first ever FAA-approved routine monetized delivery taking place under a contractual agreement, which is a huge milestone for autonomous delivery in the United States. The flights conducted under the program are part of the FAA’s Unmanned Aircraft System Integration Pilot Program (IPP), a 3-year test program to determine the safety and usefulness of drone technology in daily applications.

UPS’s Inroads in Healthcare

UPS has made healthcare one of its main priorities, and these programs are its first forays into the industry. The company's ultimate goal in the healthcare sector is to improve patient care through “streamlined logistics and the supply chain.” UPS hopes this program will be a jumping off point for similar programs at other healthcare facilities; they plan to use what they learn through this pilot to improve transportation systems at other hospitals.

How Drone Deliveries Will Work

A medical professional will load a special secure container with the sample (i.e., a blood or urine sample) at a participating facility on or around the WakeMed campus. The drone, monitored by a remote pilot, will then carry the sample on a pre-determined flight path to its destination, a fixed landing area at the main hospital building’s pathology lab. Once the drone has landed, a laboratory technician will retrieve the sample for testing. 

The new drone system has the potential to substantially improve patient care, as samples can be sent the same day on demand. The process removes many of the variables that plagued the WakeMed courier system that performed sample delivery before this program. The drone delivery system will be faster, more environmentally friendly, less labor intensive, and more cost-effective than the previous system.

Matternet's Drone Technology

The program will utilize Matternet's M2 Quadcopter, one of the brand's most popular products. Powered by a rechargeable lithium-ion battery, the M2 is capable of carrying up to five pounds and can fly distances of up to 12.5 miles. The company has also partnered with other healthcare companies to improve patient outcomes through similar programs in Switzerland.

Vaccine Delivery Innovation

In a separate healthcare project, UPS is looking at a system for delivering vaccines directly to patients. After shipping the vaccines to franchised stores, the company would then dispatch a nurse to the patient’s home to inject the vaccination. This approach would allow the company to apply their already well-developed industry leading last mile logistics system to the healthcare industry.

Image Credit: UPS Media

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