- UPS is teaming up with drone technology company Matternet to deliver medical samples autonomously across the Raleigh, North Carolina, campus of WakeMed Health & Hospitals.
- The initiative, part of a three-year Federal Aviation Administration pilot program to test practical applications for drones, has in been in trial mode since August, when Matternet began testing aerial delivery of simulated medical packages between facilities.
- UPS' participation in the program, announced this week, comes as the company touts its Global Smart Logistics Network is leveraging AI, machine learning and other advanced technologies to transform delivery. The logistics giant called supporting hospitals and healthcare organizations a "key element" of that strategy.
Unmanned aerial vehicles are still a curiosity for many people, but they're already impacting healthcare logistics in some parts of the world.
In 2016, drone startup Zipline, in partnership with UPS and Gavi, began delivering blood supplies to transfusion facilities in western Rwanda where challenges to overland transportation can prevent supplies from reaching critically ill or injured people in time to help. The San Francisco-based firm has since expanded the program to the eastern half of Rwanda and to Ghana, tallying 11,990 deliveries as of Wednesday.
Drones are also being touted as a way to respond in times of natural and other disasters. In Hattiesburg, Mississippi, where hurricanes are a seasonal threat, researchers at William Carey University College of Osteopathic Medicine have developed a drone outfitted with a telemedical kit. The kit includes diagnostics and medical equipment, as well as video guidance and a holographic interface, that enables doctors to talk with bystanders or victims virtually. It also includes locked medicine bins, which the doctor controls.
In the WakeMed program, the drones are powered by a rechargeable lithium-ion battery and capable of carrying up to 5 pounds over distances up to 12.5 miles. They will follow a predetermined flight path to a landing pad at the WakeMed's flagship hospital and central pathology lab.
UPS will coordinate authorizations and licensing for the program and, together with Matternet, use lessons learned to evaluate how drones can improve delivery services at other hospital across the U.S.
The program is expected to reduce costs and improve the patient experience by providing on-demand and same-day delivery of medical samples and specimens. Currently, WakeMed transports most samples via courier cars, which are less efficient and subject to traffic delays.
"Together with UPS, we aim to shift the status quo for on-demand logistics for healthcare systems in the U.S., Matternet CEO Andreas Raptopoulos said in a statement. "Our technology allows hospital systems to transport medical items at an unprecedented level of speed and predictability, resulting in improved patient care and operational savings.
The FAA and North Carolina Department of Transportation will oversee the program, which will be ongoing.