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Drones to Deliver Blood in North Carolina Hospital Pilot Program

drone carrying a mini shopping cart
(photo via Pixabay)

North Carolina’s WakeMed Hospital is participating in an FAA pilot program using drones to fly blood samples between buildings at the hospital’s Raleigh Campus.

WakeMed Hospital in Raleigh is one of nine institutions participating in the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) pilot program to integrate the use of drones for new purposes. The hospital partnered with UPS and drone company Matternet to fly drones between campus buildings to deliver blood samples, launching the first flight on Tuesday.

Drone Program Will Benefit Healthcare

Although people have made drone deliveries for demonstration purposes or small-scale tests before, this is the first time the FAA has allowed drones to make what is known as “revenue flights,” or routine commercial package deliveries, the FAA announced in a statement Monday.

The purpose of the test flights in the WakeMed program is to transport time-sensitive blood samples that would typically be driven between hospital buildings, decreasing transport time. To start, the program will fly the blood and specimen samples from a medical park to the main building six times a day and fives days a week, only going a distance of one-third of a mile, said Matternet CEO Andreas Raptopoulos in an interview.

“This is going to bring tremendous benefit to healthcare. Healthcare is one of these domains of commercial activity where being fast really matters.” Raptopoulos stated in the interview.

After the vials of medical specimens are loaded in a secure box and fastened to a drone, the aircraft is flown from a launching pad to the designated building, staying in the sight of the operators at all times, according to Raptopoulos.

Eventually – possibly in the upcoming months – the program in North Carolina could have much longer routes, flying several miles between WakeMed buildings in Raleigh. Later in 2019, the “medical specimen flights” could expand to hospitals in other cities.

Other Program Test Sites

The FAA’s new program is not just being tested in the healthcare realm. They are incorporating the use of drones for a variety of purposes, from insurance claims to utility inspections.

Drone operators in Reno, Nevada, are in the early stages of testing the use of drones for delivering defibrillators during health emergencies. The process to gain approval for drone flights with medical supplies or devices is in-depth, since the drones often carry hazardous materials. Because of this, the defibrillator project in Nevada has not begun home deliveries, still conducting their testing at a rural site, according to Rebecca Venis, Reno’s communications director.

“It’s different than dropping a package,” Venis said.

At another test site, drone operators dropped off ice pops to houses in a neighborhood in Virginia.

Colin Snow, part of the drone research firm known as Skylogic, said the cost-effectiveness of medical drone deliveries is still being studied.

“It just goes down to the old adage: Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should,” he said. “They’re cool, headline-making tests. But when you get down to … the economics of logistics, that’s a different matter,” Snow said.

Bala Ganesh, vice president of UPS’ advanced technology group, said in an interview: “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.”

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Leighanna Shirey

Leighanna graduated with a degree in English from Pensacola Christian College. After teaching high school English for five years, she decided to pursue her dream of writing and editing. When not working, she enjoys traveling with her husband, spending time with her dogs, and drinking way too much coffee.

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