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UPS to Deliver Medical Samples via Drones, Partners with Matternet

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【Summary】At the start of the service, UPS will facilitate seven flights per day. All flights are closely monitored by remote operators, which must land the quadcopters on a small pad at their respective destinations.

Michael Cheng    Mar 30, 2019 10:15 AM PT
UPS to Deliver Medical Samples via Drones, Partners with Matternet

UPS has reached another milestone in its mission to offer and commercialize drone-based delivery services. The company announced it will host a cutting-edge pilot program that focuses on transporting medical samples between WakeMed healthcare centers in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Approved by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), UPS has partnered with quadcopter startup Matternet to streamline various aspects of the project. The startup's role in the pilot program is vital, as it will provide a fleet of battery-powered M2 drones for the commercial service.

Drone Flights and BVLOS Waivers

Capable of carrying payloads up to 4.4 pounds, the compact aircrafts will fly from a WakeMed hospital on New Bern Avenue to a medical office site near Sunnybrook Road. The distance between the two locations is roughly a third of a mile, which takes less than five minutes to complete. Matternet's M2 drones are fully equipped to handle longer flights, with a maximum range of 12.5 miles. At the start of the service, UPS will facilitate seven flights per day.

All flights are closely monitored by remote operators, which must land the quadcopters on a small pad at their respective destinations. The drones will carry different types of lab samples, protected by a heavy-duty enclosure attached to the units.

"This is going to bring tremendous benefit to health care," explained Andreas Raptopoulos, CEO of Matternet, in an interview.

"Health care is one of these domains of commercial activity where being fast really matters. It's a fluid process, and, of course, when you do this for the first time it's not easy to predict a timeline."

UPS and California-based Matternet will use data from the pilot program to determine the feasibility of using drones to transport medical samples. Interestingly, the FAA issued waivers for Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) flights for the medical trial. Such actions suggest the government agency has confidence in the delivery company's capacity to conduct BVLOS maneuvers in a safe manner.  

Improving Turnaround Time

In addition to added convenience, doctors view the service as a solution to improving turnaround times associated with processing lab samples. Currently, medical samples transported on roads are prone to traffic, congestion and other unforeseen delays. Using quadcopters also makes travel times between healthcare facilities more predictable. During flight, the units take a predetermined, unobstructed route with very minimal obstacles.

"We're looking at significant improvements in lab turnaround time," said Stuart Ginn, Surgeon at WakeMed.

"It can take several hours for samples to get to the lab using current methods, and drones can transport samples in just minutes over the same distances."

Both UPS and Matternet have the necessary experience to carry out drone deliveries in cities. Previously, the global delivery company held a similar trial involving medical supplies in Rwanda, Africa. Conducted in collaboration with drone startup Zipline, the program was successful in increasing accessibility and reducing transport costs to remote parts of the country.

On the other hand, Matternet has completed more than 3,000 drone deliveries (also involving medical supplies) in Switzerland.

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