Matternet and UPS have been given permission to conduct regular drone deliveries of blood samples on the WakeMed hospital campus in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Photo credit: UPS
While the FAA has previously allowed drone deliveries on a case by case basis, either for the purposes of demonstration or for smaller-scale tests, it has never before allowed drones to make routine commercial package deliveries, also known as “revenue flights.”
According to Matternet, this will be the first time ever that the FAA allows regular commercial drone deliveries of products to take place in the U.S.
This is a turning point, and it’s an historic moment because this is the first FAA-sanctioned use of a (drone) for routine revenue-generating flights.
– Bala Ganesh, Vice President of UPS’ Advanced Technology Group
The WakeMed hospital campus has previously relied on courier cars for on-campus deliveries, but these cars were subject to traffic delays. Using drones will ensure that deliveries are made as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Delivery Program Details
One of the primary deliveries made on the WakeMed campus as part of the new drone delivery program will be flying patients’ samples from a medical park to the main hospital and central pathology lab for lab testing.
The distance between the two locations is one third of a mile. These deliveries will take place six times a day, five days a week, and operators have permission to fly above people while conducting their delivery missions.
When preparing deliveries a medical professional will load a secure “drone container” with the medical sample or specimen, which will then be attached to the drone.
While the drone is in flight it will be in view of trained, FAA-certified operators at either end of the route, and it will follow a preset flight path.
The drone that will be used for these deliveries is Matternet’s M2 quadcopter, which can carry medical payloads of up to five pounds over distances of 12.5 miles.
The delivery program will be overseen by the FAA and North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT). North Carolina has one of the most robust licensing systems for commercial drone pilots, which includes the requirement of passing the state’s UAS Knowledge Test.
UAS IPP and the Path Forward for Drone Deliveries
The medical delivery program at WakeMed is the result of testing conducted by Matternet as part of their participation in the UAS Integration Pilot Program (UAS IPP), which took place in August of 2018.
The UAS IPP was created by the federal government to allow local and state governments to test different types of drone operations currently prohibited by the FAA’s Part 107 rules, such as flying BVLOS (beyond visual line of sight) or over people.
The three-year program partners local governments with private companies for these tests. In the case of WakeMed, the five UAS IPP partners involved are UPS, Matternet, WakeMed, the FAA, and the NCDOT.
Matternet and UPS’ permission to go from testing to regular operations is the second case we’ve heard of recently where UAS IPP testing led to FAA approval for regular operations to commence—just a few weeks back drone delivery company Flirtey announced that they had received a waiver from the FAA to conduct BVLOS operations in Reno, NV in order to deliver Automated External Defibrillators (AEDs) for the immediate treatment of people undergoing cardiac arrest.
Although the progress of commercial drone deliveries seems to have lagged in the last year or so, medical drone deliveries have seen a significant uptick.
Companies that currently specialize in medical drone deliveries such as Zipline, Matternet, and Flirtey have all made it clear that they would like to be making commercial deliveries. We speculated recently that the UAS IPP tests could help pave the way forward for commercial deliveries, and to see Matternet receive the FAA’s first approval for commercial revenue-generating flights in order to deliver medical samples seems to be a good sign that this will be the case.
We’re excited to see the next approval granted by the FAA that comes as a result of UAS IPP testing. There are ten UAS IPP programs in total and it would be great to see ten approvals granted for various types of operations prohibited by the Part 107 rules over the next few years.
What do you think—could the WakeMed drone delivery program provide a model that could be expanded to other scenarios, or are we still a ways off from seeing drone deliveries hit the mainstream? Chime in on this thread from the UAV Coach community forum to share your thoughts.