UPS Using Drones to Deliver Medical Samples

by Emily Folk

The commercial use of drones is no longer such a novel concept. In recent years, several industries have adopted drone technology for a diverse variety of applications. To provide just one example, real estate professionals use them for aerial photography and videos, allowing for an extensive view of a property.

Other industries, like construction, have used drones for similar purposes, and they serve a function in law enforcement and agriculture as well. With each passing year, companies entrust greater responsibility to unmanned aerial vehicles. Their capacity for complex tasks has continued to expand, creating new opportunities.

The drone startup Zipline — partnered with Gavi and UPS — helped deliver blood supplies to transfusion facilities in western Rwanda. UAVs were capable of overcoming the challenges to transportation that had caused problems in the past. Since then, the project has grown to include Ghana.

With the success of its initiative in Africa, UPS has shown interest in drone technology for the delivery of medical samples in the United States. It has taken steps toward implementing the program, which has already shown incredible promise as an efficient transportation strategy. So what does that program look like?

Details of the WakeMed Program

UPS has focused its efforts in Raleigh, North Carolina, on the campus of WakeMed Health and Hospitals. It’s partnered with the drone technology company Matternet to transport medical samples between facilities. These early efforts are an evaluation of the autonomous technology before it sees adoption elsewhere.

On the subject of testing, the initiative is part of a Federal Aviation Administration pilot program, designed to assess the practical applications for drones over three years. It has remained in trial mode since August, when it first started to test the aerial delivery of imitation medical packages to and from facilities.

As for the model of drone, the program uses Matternet’s M2 quadcopter, which runs on a rechargeable lithium-ion battery. It can carry medical payloads of about 5 pounds, traveling distances up to 12.5 miles. The drones follow a predetermined path, with careful monitoring from a remote pilot-in-command.

Presently, WakeMed transports most samples with courier cars, a less efficient method that is only exacerbated by traffic delays. With the full integration of Matternet’s M2 quadcopters for the delivery of medical samples on WakeMed’s campus, they can account for these inefficiencies and setbacks.

The CEO of Matternet, Andreas Raptopoulos, mentioned this point in a statement concerning the partnership with UPS: “This technology allows hospital systems to transport medical items at an unprecedented level of speed and predictability, resulting in improved patient care and operational savings.”

Predictions and Potential Challenges

The WakeMed program — and the preceding initiative in Africa — underscore the value of drone technology. They also call attention to an inherent fear many people have regarding autonomous technology. Given the fatality in 2018 involving a self-driving Uber, that fear isn’t entirely unfounded.

Of course, it’s unfair to draw a comparison between drones and self-driving vehicles, but the point remains the same. The sensitivity of medical samples demands a method of transport that is secure, safe from risks and sufficiently reliable. Fortunately, UPS and Matternet are taking the necessary precautions.

As mentioned earlier, the autonomous drones are under the supervision of a remote pilot-in-command, or RPIC. These specially trained professionals will monitor the deliveries to pre-empt problems and prevent any issues. Beyond the security of an RPIC, UPS and Matternet also require approval from the Federal Aviation Administration and North Carolina’s department of transportation.

If UPS and Matternet receive approval, and the WakeMed program proves successful, it’s safe to speculate drones will see even greater adoption for commercial use. Professionals in other industries will delegate more important duties to UAVs, employing them to their full potential in new and fascinating ways.

Moving Toward the Future

The commercial use of drones is no longer such a novel concept, and soon it will feel like a familiar one. As drone technology continues to prove its value in real estate, construction, law enforcement, agriculture and health care, companies will invest in new equipment to refine their outdated practices.

As we move toward the future, it’s impossible to predict the precise shape these changes will take. Nonetheless, it’s exciting to see how UPS and Matternet are using drones to reach new heights of innovation.

Emily Folk covers topics in technology, manufacturing and sustainability. You can read more of her work on her blog, Conservation Folks.

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