UPS teams with Matternet to deliver medical samples via drone

In what UPS is calling the first revenue drone service in the United States, the integrator said today that it has collaborated with California-based drone technology firm Matternet to send the first of many daily scheduled daily flights of medical samples via unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) for a North Carolina hospital client.

With clearance by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT, UPS began the service this morning, using Matternet’s M2 quadcopter model, to carry blood samples from WakeMed’s flagship hospital in Raleigh to a clinic in another part of the WakeMed campus. According to UPS, the flight took just three minutes and 15 seconds, for a trip that usually takes about a half-hour via road-based courier.

NCDOT has been conducting drone tests with Matternet on the WakeMed campus since August 2018 as part of the FAA’s Unmanned Aircraft System Integration Pilot Program (IPP), a three-year project to test practical applications of drone technology. The Matternet’s M2 drone model being used is powered by a rechargeable lithium-ion battery and can carry medical payloads weighing up to 2.3 kilograms, over distances of up to 20 kilometers.

“Drone transport will improve [the] speed of deliveries at a lower cost, enhance access to care and create healthier communities,” said Donald Gintzig, WakeMed’s president & CEO. “We believe drone technology has the potential to achieve transformative improvements in health and healthcare delivery.”

In the WakeMed program, a medical professional loaded the samples in a UPS’ secure drone container at a landing pad outside one of WakeMed’s facilities. The drone then flew along a predetermined flight path, monitored by a trained remote pilot, to another fixed landing pad at WakeMed’s main hospital and central pathology lab.

UPS and Matternet said they will use the data from this project to consider future UAV applications at other U.S. medical facilities that need to ship time- and temperature-sensitive healthcare samples over short and medium-sized distances. The program is part of UPS’ plan to grow its Global Smart Logistics Network to include other hospitals, labs and healthcare organizations around the country. “Using drones to bring blood and other diagnostic specimens from medical facilities to central labs will improve transport efficiencies like never before,” said Chris Cassidy, president of global healthcare and life sciences strategy at UPS. “And with fewer vehicles on the road, we’ll generate less environmental impact.”

In recent years, UPS and Matternet have experimented with other UAV flights in support of healthcare logistics, including a 2016 project with GAVI and Zipline to deliver blood products to remote locations in Rwanda. Matternet has so far completed more than 3,000 flights for healthcare systems in Switzerland.

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