One of the best examples of drone deliveries must be Zipline’s blood and medical supply delivery system in Rwanda. The San Francisco-based company has successfully used drones to fly “more than 187,500 miles, delivering 7,000 units of blood over 7,500 flights” since they launched their service in Africa. Could medical cargo benefitting from using a drone to deliver supplies open up the skies for more routine drone deliveries?

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Routine drone deliveries could start with medical supplies

This article, that was recently posted on NPR, argues that indeed medical cargo may open up the skies for more routine drone deliveries. We already know that Amazon, Google, Boeing and others are anxious to get started with their own drone deliveries and are in the process to start their own privately funded Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM) system.

Currently, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is reviewing 149 proposals that were submitted under the UAS Integration Pilot Program and at least 10 of them will be selected sometime in May. John Walker, a Lancaster, Penn.-based aerospace consultant who spent 32 years at the FAA had this to say about the proposals:

“I am confident that one-half or more of all the applicants have put some element of medical support in their proposal.”

Walker believes that the public will more rapidly accept drones as a way of delivering supplies when they are involved in bringing blood and medical supplies to people in need. This, in turn, would also open up the doors for other drone delivery companies.

“That linear network where drones can operate between hospitals … would also have Amazon and anyone else that could meet the requirements to operate,” Walker says.

Another Bay Area company, Matternet has started working with the Swiss Post to launch a medical transport network in Lugano, Switzerland. Since their start last October, they have made 350 deliveries, averaging about 10 per day. The same company is also involved in the US, where blood delivered by drone may soon be a reality in Palo Alto, California. The Palo Alto and Stanford Blood Center is making a pitch to the Federal Aviation Administration. Blood-carrying drones may start making their first deliveries early 2018.

Drone deliveries will be significant time-savers

Dr. Geoff Baird, a clinical pathologist at the University of Washington in Seattle, said that his team processes millions of blood samples, urine specimens and swabs each year and most reach central lab facilities by car.

“We have cars going seven days a week, many times a day, up and down the state of Washington on freeways, across the passes, in the mountains,” Baird says.

The case for drone deliveries becomes even stronger when you consider that the University of Washington also processes testing for out-of-state hospitals and clinics on the San Juan Islands off the coast of Washington. Getting samples from clinics on the islands to the lab involves taking a trip by car, plane, and ferry, which can easily take up to 24 hours or more.

With a drone, such as the ones that are made by Latitude Engineering, the same delivery can be made in 90 minutes. Latitude has developed a military-grade unmanned aerial vehicle that Johns Hopkins researchers used to carry refrigerated blood samples 160 miles in a 3-hour flight across the desert.

Researchers from Johns Hopkins developed a temperature-controlled container to transport blood samples by drone. Photo credit: Johns Hopkins School of Medicine

It comes as no surprise that the University of Washington is one of the 149 applicants who put a bid in for the FAA program. Their proposal is part of a larger application submitted by Washington’s Department of Transportation, which also includes companies like Amazon and T-Mobile.

Other US examples of medical supplies delivered by drone can be found in North Carolina, where the Department of Transportation together with Zipline and Matternet also applied to the FAA program. And in Reno, Nev., drone manufacturer Flirtey is using unmanned aerial vehicles to deliver defibrillators to potentially save hundreds of thousands of lives across America each year, by increasing the likelihood of recovering from a cardiac arrest.

What all these companies will need for drone deliveries to take is a platform or infrastructure that will allow drones to safely be integrated into the national airspace. During the FAA Symposium in Baltimore last week, Jay Merkle, a senior FAA program manager and airspace planner said that the pace and scope of an Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM) system are “really not an FAA decision.” It is a decision for the drone community, he told the conference, and its success will “depend on how well the industry will come together.”

DroneDJ’s take

It seems that the use-case for drones to deliver supplies may be the strongest in the medical field where they can directly benefit and impact people’s lives. It will be exciting to see which of the 149 proposals are selected by the FAA later this year to start in the UAS Integration Pilot Program.

Keep in mind though that the technical ability of drones to safely deliver packages is only a first step. To scale up and integrate thousands of drones delivering packages across highly populated areas and sharing the national airspace with manned aircraft, is a far more complicated step that involves various different stakeholders working closely together. Keep an eye out for Amazon, Google, Boeing and GE as they have already started working on the underlying infrastructure that will be required. Exciting times!

What do you think about drone deliveries and where do you see their biggest added value? Let us know in the comments below.

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Photo credit: The HQ-40 drone, made by Tuscon, Ariz.-based Latitude Engineering, can transport for instance blood samples in a refrigerated container. Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

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