On March 26th, 2019, a California-based drone company, Matternet, carried a UPS medical sample container in a North Carolina drone delivery program. This marks the first drone delivery made officially in the US. Called the “WakeMed project,” Matternet drones will carry lab specimens from WakeMed clinics to its central laboratory for analysis. It will take the drones roughly three minutes to fly the inaugural route; currently, it can take up to half an hour to get samples to the lab from the same location by a courier who, may make multiple stops, the companies say. Drone delivery should enable quicker turnaround on urgently needed tests and ultimately could allow healthcare systems to save money by consolidating their labs. However, this whole flight test was done under FAA regulations, meaning the drone was controlled by a PIC (Pilot In Command) and flew a predetermined route that wasn’t over people, where the pilot could see the craft. These are the regulations by the FAA that have stopped many drone delivery companies from moving forward. The CEO of Matternet, Andreas Raptopoulos, stated: “For this to be commercially viable it needs to be autonomous, remotely supervised with no pilot in command on-site.”

He is right; there are a handful of countries that are far ahead of the United States in regard to the use of drones and there synchronization with the public. Matternet, for example, has been delivering lab samples in Switzerland since 2017 in collaboration with Swiss Post. They completed more than 3,000 flights in the cities of Lugano, Berne and Zurich; Matternet are currently testing their autonomous flight program. In August 2018, the FAA started the Unmanned Aircraft System Integration Pilot Program (IPP). The three year FAA program aims to test practical applications of drones by partnering local governments with private sector companies. This means they can learn more about how this emerging technology can be safely and usefully integrated into day-to-day activities. The five IPP partners involved are the FAA, NCDOT, UPS, Matternet, and WakeMed. UPS announced its partnership with Matternet the same day that the flight was completed and are backing the company to start delivery of their packages nationwide once the FAA approves them. Boeing has also announced their partnership and together, between Boeing and UPS, the company will have plenty of funding to continue their path to autonomous drone delivery (a $40 million contract). While others are still working on drones to deliver packages or pizza, Matternet saw medical delivery as a way to best showcase the potential of this technology. “We feel very strongly that there’s so much inefficiency in how medical systems are run when it comes to logistics,” says Raptopoulos.,“Now there’s tremendous benefit we can bring.”

Source: Peters, Adele. “The country’s first regular commercial drone delivery is here.” World Changing Ideas, 26 March 2019.