UPS is beginning a groundbreaking new logistics program using unmanned drones to deliver medical samples at a North Carolina hospital. It’s the first FAA-sanctioned use of a drone for routine revenue flights transporting products under a contractual delivery agreement. The pilot program is taking place at WakeMed Hospital in Raleigh, North Carolina, overseen by the FAA and North Carolina Department of Transportation.
The program represents a major milestone for unmanned aviation in the U.S. Working with Matternet, a California drone company, drones operate multiple times a day between a medical building on the edge of WakeMed’s campus and the hospital’s main pathology lab. The project is part of the FAA’s Unmanned Aircraft System Integration Pilot Program, or IPP. The IPP aims to test practical applications of drones by partnering local governments with private sector companies to learn how drone technology can be integrated safely and usefully into day-to-day activities.
The program is managed by the UPS Advanced Technology Group. Bala Ganesh, who leads the group, said drones are an important part of UPS’s transformation efforts.
“What you’re seeing is transformation in action. It will play out over the next four or five years, but today is the first step in that journey,” Ganesh said.
The M2 drone can carry a five-pound payload over a distance of up to 12.5 miles, at a speed of more than 40 miles per hour. Initial service involves short hops moving blood samples between buildings at WakeMed, but even that short distance can have a significant impact. The service avoids road delays and reduces transit time from hours by courier to potentially just minutes by drone. As the project advances, drones will connect the hospital with satellite medical facilities miles away.
UPS will use what it learns at WakeMed to identify drone service opportunities at more U.S. hospitals and potentially other specialized segments.
“This opens the door for UPS and Matternet to serve the life science sector in a more robust way as logistics demands shift,” said Chris Cassidy, president of UPS Global Healthcare and Life Science Logistics. “Healthcare logistics is a strategic focus for UPS, and we are developing innovative solutions that position us as the logistics provider of choice.”
Dr. Stuart Ginn, director of WakeMed Innovations, said he’s excited about the drone program because it has the potential to reshape how the hospital provides care to patients. He added that UPS’s participation has been critical.
“When a company like UPS shows up and shows interest, it legitimizes the entire industry and accelerates the entire industry,” he said.
I'm a big fan of innovation but drone delivery will only work for a very small portion of the over all marketplace. Standard package delivery, which is UPS's forte, will not be possible by drone. The weight limitations is a major bottleneck. The liability associated with injuring someone during delivery is another factor. Thirdly, the terrain and environment of the delivery area is another factor. There is no delivering to forested areas or during times of inclement weather. The battery would need to be heated because lithium based batteries begin failing in sub 20F degree weather.