Drone delivery: Medical supplies will soon be flying around San Diego

Medical facilities are becoming increasingly interested in drone delivery as a way to quickly move important samples and supplies between nearby hospitals and laboratories.

UPS and drone company Matternet is one such partnership that’s exploring the space, with the pair already conducting test deliveries of blood for transfusions and other medical samples between facilities in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Pleased with the results of the Raleigh trial, UPS and Matternet are gearing up to launch a second one in San Diego, transporting items between Jacobs Medical Center, Moores Cancer Center, and the Center for Advanced Laboratory Medicine.

The test flights, which begin in February 2020, will replace ground-based deliveries where possible, and cover a maximum distance of about a mile. Matternet’s purpose-built M2 drones will carry payloads such as blood samples and documents along a “predetermined, low-risk” flight path. The quadcopters will fly autonomously between the different facilities, but will be observed and monitored by people on the ground.

“Currently, medical samples that must be transported between health care sites are carried by courier cars, which are naturally subject to the variabilities of traffic and other ground issues,” Matthew Jenusaitis, chief administrative officer for innovation and transformation at UC San Diego Health, told UC SD News.

Jenusaitis added that with drones, it’s important to “demonstrate proof-of-concept for getting vital samples where they need to be for testing or assessment more quickly and simply. It’s another way to leverage emerging technologies in a way that can tangibly benefit our patients.”

California-based Matternet has been developing its end-to-end drone platform since 2011, though it has suffered a few hiccups along the way. In May 2019, for example, Matternet’s drone delivery partnership with Swiss Post was suspended after one of its machines crashed near a kindergarten in Zurich, Switzerland. The program was recently reviewed by safety officials and given the go-ahead to resume.

As for UPS, it’s working hard to get involved in a range of initiatives using emerging technology. Besides a partnership with CVS that is exploring the idea of using drones to deliver prescription drugs and retail items to customers’ homes, it has also recently teamed up with autonomous-car specialist Waymo for a package-delivery trial in Phoenix, Arizona, using Waymo’s self-driving Chrysler Pacifica minivans.

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