UPS, Matternet test medical drone deliveries in North Carolina

By Patrick C. Miller | April 04, 2019

UPS and Matternet—a California company specializing in autonomous drone technology—are teaming up to create a logistics service to deliver medical samples by drone.

The program is taking place at the WakeMed hospital and campus in Raleigh, North Carolina. Matternet says drone transport provides on-demand, same-day delivery to increase efficiency, lower costs and create potential life-saving benefits for patients. The battery-powered Matternet M2 quadcopter is being used to transport a five-pound medical payload for up to 12.5 miles.

A WakeMed medical professional loads a secure drone container with a medical sample or specimen—such as a blood sample—at one of the company’s nearby facilities. The drone flies a predetermined flight path, monitored by a specially trained remote pilot-in-command, to a landing pad at WakeMed’s main hospital and central pathology lab. Results of the test flights will be used to determine how drones can improve transport services at other hospitals and medical facilities across the U.S.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) are providing program oversight. The program’s five partners are the FAA, NCDOT, UPS, Matternet, and WakeMed. UPS and Matternet say the program is a milestone for U.S. unmanned aviation. Currently, most medical samples and specimens are transported across WakeMed’s health system by courier cars. Drone transport offers the ability to avoid roadway delays.

NCDOT is leveraging drones to expand healthcare access for the North Carolina residents. In August 2018, the agency supported Matternet in conducting first-round test flights using the company’s drone technology on WakeMed’s campus as part of the FAA’s UAS Integration Pilot Program (IPP). The three-year FAA program tests practical applications of drones by partnering local governments with private-sector companies.

UPS said enhancing its Global Smart Logistics Network to support hospitals and other healthcare organizations is a key element of the company’s transformation strategy. Healthcare and life science logistics is a priority segment for UPS, and the company says it’s building new relationships and technologies to deliver better patient care with streamlined logistics and supply chain.

This collaboration is the latest UPS program to use drone flights in support of healthcare logistics. UPS partnered with GAVI and Zipline in 2016 to deliver blood products to remote locations in Rwanda. The Matternet team has already completed more than 3,000 flights for healthcare systems in Switzerland.