UPS is teaming up with autonomous delivery drone startup Matternet to experiment with using drones to deliver medical supplies, the companies announced on Tuesday. Starting today, the supplies will be delivered via Matternet’s M2 quadcopters to WakeMed hospital in Raleigh, North Carolina.
The drone delivery program will be overseen by the Federal Aviation Administration and the North Carolina Department of Transportation. It will be small at first: Matternet’s drones can only carry payloads of up to five pounds over distances of up to 12.5 miles. Here’s how the companies describe the delivery program:
Throughout the WakeMed program, a medical professional will load a secure drone container with a medical sample or specimen – such as a blood sample – at one of WakeMed’s nearby facilities. The drone will fly along a predetermined flight path, monitored by a specially trained Remote Pilot-in-Command (RPIC), to a fixed landing pad at WakeMed’s main hospital and central pathology lab. This will be an ongoing program at WakeMed, and UPS and Matternet will use the learnings to consider how drones can be applied to improve transport services at other hospitals and medical facilities across the U.S.
The announcement follows a pilot in August 2018 as part of the FAA’s Unmanned Aircraft System Integration Pilot Program. Matternet, based in Menlo Park, California, has previously conducted drone delivery experiments in Switzerland along with Mercedes-Benz.
UPS, in particular, is interested in using drones to deliver health care products. The delivery giant partnered with vaccine nonprofit GAVI and Zipline in 2016 to deliver blood samples to remote locations in Rwanda. For its part, Matternet says it has already completed more than 3,000 flights for health care systems in Switzerland.
Despite predictions from tech moguls and CEOs about the skies eventually being full of package-bearing quadcopters, drone delivery is still in its nascent stages. Air space regulations present formidable hurdles for most companies that want to launch commercial services. Regulators continue to debate allowing companies like Matternet to operate drones beyond a pilot’s visual line of sight, at night, and over heavily populated areas.