Delivery of clinical laboratory specimens and medical supplies by drone is beginning to happen in different parts of the world

The idea that fleets of flying drones may someday legally transport clinical laboratory specimens may sound good—it may even be beneficial from a healthcare perspective—but it also could be hugely disruptive to medical labs that maintain large and expensive courier/logistics capabilities. 

So, the announcement that the FAA had granted approval to Amazon’s new drone delivery fleet—Amazon Prime Air—may come as something of a mixed blessing to clinical laboratory managers and large healthcare networks.

Nevertheless, it’s done. Amazon Prime Air has joined Alphabet Inc’s Wing and the United Parcel Services’ Flight Forward as “the only companies that have gotten FAA approval to operate under the federal regulations governing charter operators and small airlines,” Bloomberg reported.

But will this trend bode well for clinical laboratories?

Does Amazon Plan to Deliver Clinical Laboratory Specimens?

As yet, Amazon has not announced its intention to deliver clinical laboratory specimens. But given the company’s trajectory as a disrupter of traditional retail and shipping industries, it seems reasonable that competing with Wing and Flight Forward might be part of Amazon’s plan.

Wing and UPS are already operating fledgling clinical laboratory delivery networks in the US and other nations, such as Australia and Switzerland. Wing has been testing limited drone deliveries in Christiansburg, VA, since it received FAA approval to operate drone deliveries last year. UPS received similar approval last year to operate drones to deliver biological specimens and clinical laboratory supplies between physicians’ offices and the central clinical laboratory on WakeMed’s medical campus in Raleigh, NC.

Dark Daily covered both of these events in “UPS and WakeMed Now Use Aerial Drone for Daily Transport of Clinical Laboratory Specimens; In Australia, Google Wing Initiates Drone Delivery Service.”

Amazon’s MK27 drone (above) is a hybrid aircraft that can take off and land vertically like a helicopter and sustain forward flight. The drone has several built-in safety features, including thermal cameras, depth cameras, onboard computers and sonar to detect hazards in its path and navigate around them. Click here to watch a video of the drone in flight. (Video copyright: Amazon.)

Amazon’s drones can fly up to 7.5 miles from a distribution site (a 15-mile round trip) and can deliver packages that weigh less than five pounds to customers. The goal is to deliver small items that can fit in the drone’s cargo box to consumers in under 30 minutes. 

Are Drones the Future of Medical Laboratory Specimen Delivery?

Routine deliveries via drones are still a long way off as more trial runs are needed and the FAA has to develop standards and regulations for drone delivery operations to maintain order in the skies. However, in a statement, the FAA said it is trying to support innovation in the expanding drone arena while ensuring that the devices operate safely. The FAA plans to finalize a set of regulations for drones by the end of this year, Bloomberg reported.

“This certification is an important step forward for Prime Air and indicates the FAA’s confidence in Amazon’s operating and safety procedures for an autonomous drone delivery service that will one day deliver packages to our customers around the world,” David Carbon, Vice President Prime Air at Amazon, said in a statement to Business Insider. “We will continue to develop and refine our technology to fully integrate delivery drones into the airspace and work closely with the FAA and other regulators around the world to realize our vision of 30-minute delivery.”

So, will Amazon one day announce plans to deliver medical supplies and clinical laboratory specimens in under 30 minutes too? It wouldn’t be unreasonable to believe in the possibility.

Dark Daily previously covered similar drone delivery services under development for healthcare situations around the world. In “Drones Used to Deliver Clinical Laboratory Specimens in Switzerland,” we reported how a multiple-facility hospital group in Switzerland was using drones to deliver lab samples between two of their locations.

In “WakeMed Uses Drone to Deliver Patient Specimens,” our sister publication, The Dark Report, covered how in April, 2019, clinical lab professionals at WakeMed Health and Hospitals completed the first successful revenue-generating commercial transport of lab supplies by drone in the United States. The satellite lab now sends urine, blood, and other patient specimens for routine testing to the main lab.

And in “California Company Creates ‘Uber for Blood’ to Speed the Transport of Life-Saving Medical Laboratory Supplies and Blood Products in Rwanda,” we reported how drones are being utilized to transport vital blood supplies to remote areas of Rwanda and Tanzania.

Dark Daily also reported in 2017 that researchers from Johns Hopkins University had successfully flown a drone carrying lab specimens more than 161 miles across the Arizona desert, setting a US record for the longest distance drone delivery of viable medical specimens.

Amazon would fit right in.

Though regular drone delivery of medical supplies and clinical laboratory specimens may take some time to develop, it is a trend that laboratory managers should watch closely. The potential for drones to safely and inexpensively transport clinical laboratory specimens could become a reality sooner than expected.

—JP Schlingman

Related Information:

Amazon’s Drone Delivery Fleet Hits Milestone with FAA Clearance

FAA Approves Amazon’s Drone Delivery Fleet

FAA Clears Amazon’s Fleet of Prime Air Drones for Liftoff

Here’s Amazon’s New Transforming Prime Air Delivery Drone

UPS and WakeMed Now Use Aerial Drone for Daily Transport of Clinical Laboratory Specimens; In Australia, Google Wing Initiates Drone Delivery Service

Drones Used to Deliver Clinical Laboratory Specimens in Switzerland

California Company Creates ‘Uber for Blood’ to Speed the Transport of Life-Saving Medical Laboratory Supplies and Blood Products in Rwanda

Johns Hopkins’ Test Drone Travels 161 Miles to Set Record for Delivery Distance of Clinical Laboratory Specimens

Chairman and CEO David Abney Explains UPS’ Drive Toward Drone Technology