News, Analysis, Trends, Management Innovations for
Clinical Laboratories and Pathology Groups

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News, Analysis, Trends, Management Innovations for
Clinical Laboratories and Pathology Groups

Hosted by Robert Michel
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Hospitals in United States and Germany Team Up with Matternet and UPS to Make Medical Laboratory Deliveries by Drone the New Normal

Service uses ‘hub-and-spoke’ routing model to provide rapid delivery of time-and-temperature-sensitive clinical laboratory specimens and supplies

Drone delivery service in healthcare is beginning to take flight both here and abroad, with California-based Matternet launching medical drone delivery networks in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and Berlin, Germany.

The successful use of unmanned aircraft to deliver patient specimens has major implications for clinical laboratories. When conditions allow them to fly, drones can significantly shorten delivery times of routine patient specimens such as blood and urine.

According to an iQ Healthtech news release, North Carolina’s Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center’s central campus will be the site of the drone delivery industry’s first hub-and-spoke operating model, which launches drones from one central location to multiple locations. Drone-maker Matternet is teaming up with UPS’ drone delivery service, UPS Flight Forward (UPSFF), and Winston-Salem-based iQ Healthtech Labs to operate Matternet’s M2 drones across the hospital system.

Drone Delivery Can Save Time and Money

The drones will fly two routes and carry scheduled deliveries of specialty infusion medicines and personal protective equipment (PPE). Because infusion medicines are patient-specific, high cost, and have a short shelf life, delivery by drone within 10 minutes is an ideal solution, Matternet said in the news release. Individually compounded medicines also will be delivered on-demand for dispensing to patients who need real-time access to treatments.

Jane Shen, PharmD

“This partnership with UPSFF aligns strategically with our mission to improve the health of those in the communities that we serve as well as our Virtual Health sector in iQ Healthtech Labs,” said Jane Shen, PharmD (above), Chief Strategy Officer at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, and Head of Sector Development for Innovation Quarter, a subsidiary of iQ Healthtech Labs, in the IQ Healthtech Labs news release. “We seek to leverage technology advances to make access to healthcare easier and more effective. Collaborating in innovative ways with a key logistics partner like UPS allows Wake Forest Baptist to deliver care in better and more efficient ways to patients and their families.” (Photo copyright: Triad Business Journal.)

Matternet has been operating in the US since August 2018. In, “WakeMed Uses Drone to Deliver Patient Specimens,” Dark Daily’s sister publication, The Dark Report, reported how—following a two-year trial period using a quadcopter to deliver patients’ samples from a physicians’ office satellite lab/draw station to the WakeMed Medical Center’s central lab—the North Carolina healthcare system, in partnership with UPSFF, completed the first successful revenue-generating commercial transport of lab supplies by drone in the US at WakeMed’s flagship hospital and campus in Raleigh, N.C.

Since then, more than 2,200 deliveries of lab samples have been completed. The service at Wake Forest Baptist Health, as well as WakeMed, are part of North Carolina Department of Transportation’s participation in the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA’s) Unmanned Aircraft System Integration Pilot Program, Matternet stated in a news release

Bala Ganesh, a Vice President of Engineering at UPS, said UPSFF, which was launched in July 2019, is focused on healthcare deliveries. To make drone deliveries commercially viable, both “criticality” and an industry’s “willingness to pay” are important, he said. “We never looked at delivering pizza,” he told Forbes. UPSFF is the first company to receive the FAA’s Part 135 certification (package delivery by drone).

Matternet Station

The video above demonstrates Matternet’s “Easy-to-use interface for sending and receiving packages 24/7/365.” The Matternet Station (above) is “integrated with the Matternet Cloud [Matternet’s proprietary software platform for operating Matternet networks] and the M2 Drone for payload and battery exchange, and autonomous take-off and landing. The station “can store up to seven payloads and batteries and hold one Matternet M2 Drone in its hangar.” Hospital-based clinical laboratory managers will appreciate the ease at which the station can be accessed by lab personnel. Click here to watch the full video. (Video and caption copyright: Matternet.)

BVLOS Drone Delivery of Clinical Laboratory Specimens in Europe

Last year, Matternet launched the first beyond-visual-line-of-sight (BVLOS)-operated medical drone network in Europe. Its unmanned aircraft will be flown without the requirement that a pilot always maintain a visual line of sight on the aircraft.

Matternet launched its BVLOS operations at Labor Berlin, Europe’s largest hospital laboratory, which includes facilities in 13 hospitals across Berlin.

“We continue to expand drone delivery operations around the world with a focus on urban environments,” said Andreas Raptopoulos, Matternet Founder and CEO, in a press release. “Hospitals and laboratories in densely populated cities like Berlin need fast and predictable transportation methods that avoid urban congestion. We are thrilled to partner with Labor Berlin and look forward to streamlining their diagnostics work to the benefit of Berlin’s hospitals and residents.”

According to the press release, Matternet’s drone delivery network will transport samples from hospitals to Labor Berlin facilities up to 70% faster than ground courier services, as well as reducing vehicular traffic and emissions in Berlin’s urban core. Currently, more than 15,000 samples are transported daily across Labor Berlin’s healthcare system.

Will Drone Delivery of Clinical Laboratory Specimens Become the New Normal?

“I think that this is the wave of the future,” Atrium Health Senior Vice President Conrad Emmerich, who previously served as Senior Vice President, Business Services, at Wake Forest Baptist Health, told Fox 8 News.

It’s certainly beginning to look as if drone delivery as a viable alternative to traditional transport methods is taking off (pun intended). Since 2017, Dark Daily has published 10 ebriefings on drone delivery systems for healthcare being trailed worldwide.

Even Amazon is getting into the business of drone delivery and may be eyeing healthcare as the next industry to disrupt, which Dark Daily covered in “Amazon’s Prime Air Drone Fleet Receives FAA Approval to Make Deliveries to Customers, Could Clinical Laboratory Specimens and Supplies be Next?

Since the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, regular transporting of clinical laboratory specimens and supplies by drone could reduce transit times between hospitals and clinical laboratories and lower laboratory specimen transportation costs.

Hospital administrators and medical laboratory executives may want to keep tabs on the expansion of such services into their regions. There may be opportunities to improve clinical outcomes and patient satisfaction.

—Andrea Downing Peck

Related Information

Wake Forest Baptist Health, iQ Healthtech Labs Launch Drone Delivery Service with UPS Flight Forward

North Carolina Hospital Chain Begins Drone Deliveries of Medicines

Matternet’s M2 Drone System Enabling New U.S. Hospital Delivery Network at Wake Forest Baptist Health

UAS Integrated Pilot Program

Matternet Launches Drone Delivery Operations at Labor Berlin in Germany

Matternet Launches BVLOS Medical Drone Delivery Operations in Berlin

Wake Forest Baptist Health Looking to Expand Drone Delivery Service

WakeMed Uses Drone to Deliver Patient Specimens

Amazon’s Prime Air Drone Fleet Receives FAA Approval to Make Deliveries to Customers, Could Clinical Laboratory Specimens and Supplies be Next?

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

Drone delivery of goods, including medical laboratory specimens, gains popularity around the world and FAA licensing in the US

In April, Dark Daily’s sister publication The Dark Report was first to report WakeMed Health and Hospitals’ use of a quadcopter drone to deliver patients’ medical laboratory specimens. The drone flew roundtrip between a complex of physicians’ offices on WakeMed’s Raleigh, N.C. campus and the central clinical laboratory.

The flight was the culmination of a multi-year drone-delivery pilot program during which a team at WakeMed collaborated with the United Parcel Service (UPS), the Federal Aviation Commission (FAA), and the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT). Matternet of Menlo Park, Calif., manufactured the drones used for the flights.

The April flight was the first time a drone transport of medical laboratory specimens in the US generated revenue.

Google Drone Delivery?

Not to be outdone, Alphabet (NASDAQ:GOOG), Google’s parent company, appears to be getting in on the trend. In April, the FAA issued an Air Carrier Certification to Wing Aviation LLC, an air delivery developer and subsidiary of Alphabet. Wing has recently launched a drone delivery service in Canberra, Australia and is testing a similar drone delivery service in the US.

“Our service allows customers to order a range of items such as fresh food, hot coffee, or over-the-counter chemist items on our mobile app, and have them delivered directly to their homes by drone in minutes,” Wing stated in a press release.

The photo above shows a Virginia family receiving breakfast delivered by a Wing drone, part of an FAA validation flight. (Photo copyright: Wing Aviation.)

The FAA’s Air Carrier Certification allows Wing to deliver goods from local businesses to private homes in the US. Their vertical take-off drones weigh about 11 pounds, are equipped with a hover propeller to reduce noise, and have wings that allow the devices to fly further and faster while using less energy.

The FAA certification restricts drone deliveries to daylight hours only with no flying in the rain. The devices are allowed to fly over people but cannot hover above them, nor can they carry any hazardous materials.  

The company plans to launch a trial delivery service later this year in the Blacksburg and Christiansburg areas of Southwest Virginia. Wing hopes to add other markets to its drone delivery service in the future. 

“This is an important step forward for the safe testing and integration of drones into our economy. Safety continues to be our number one priority as this technology continues to develop and realize its full potential,” said U.S. Secretary of Transportation, Elaine L. Chao, in a press release.

Wing Drones Deliver Over Australia Too!

Wing has been testing its drone delivery service in Australia since 2014. Over the past 18 months, Wing has flown over 70,000 test flights and made more than 3,000 successful deliveries—including food, small household items, and over-the-counter drug store items—as part of the Australia project.

In April, the company launched a commercial air delivery service in the North Canberra area of Australia after receiving approval from the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA).

Drone Delivery Could Reshape Healthcare

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, but commonly called drones) continue to gain in popularity around the world. As more drones appear in the sky, more practical functions are being discovered for them, including medical uses.

According to an article penned by Jeremy Tucker, DO, for Drones in Healthcare, numerous potential medical uses exist for drones. In addition to transport and delivery services, they may also be helpful in search and rescue missions and providing medical care and telemedicine services. Tucker is Executive Director for Patient Safety Solutions at US Acute Care Solutions.

“Drones are going to decrease the reliance on human beings that provide care and decrease the cost of assisting people,” he predicted. “Being able to cross long distances at faster speeds to deliver blood products and lab samples also is a huge benefit. Now transporting blood products between hospitals, for example, involves vehicles on the ground that are prone to accidents and delays. Drones can help decrease those incidents.”

Prior to using drones for clinical laboratory specimen deliveries, WakeMed relied on courier cars and trucks to transport specimens within the campus. The ground delivery service could take up to an hour to complete. By comparison, drones can make the same delivery in minutes, ensuring lab specimens remain viable, and getting test results to patients faster.

Drone Delivery Around the World!

Dark Daily previously covered the use of drones to deliver laboratory specimens in Switzerland and laboratory supplies and blood products in Rwanda. And in 2017, Dark Daily reported that a team of researchers from Johns Hopkins University had successfully flown a drone carrying lab specimens more than 161 miles across the Arizona desert. 

Might we soon see a Google drone delivery service for clinical laboratory specimens as well?

The utilization of drones represents another market trend that is creating opportunities for clinical laboratories. Using drones to transport lab specimens could be a potential source of revenue and presents labs with a pathway for providing value-added, timely service to healthcare networks.

—JP Schlingman

Related Information:

Google’s Wing Kicks off First Drone Delivery Service in Australia

UPS Partners with Matternet to Transport Medical Samples via Drone Across Hospital System in Raleigh, N.C.

Matternet Partners with UPS as It Launches First Regular Drone Delivery Service in U.S.

UPS Launches First Revenue Drone Delivery Service in U.S.

FAA and NCDOT Launch Drone Pilot Over WakeMed

UAS Integration Pilot Program

NCDOT Launches ‘First Flight’ in Drone Pilot Program

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

WakeMed Used Drone to Deliver Patient Specimens

Drones Used to Deliver Clinical Laboratory Specimens in Switzerland

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

UPS’ program on WakeMed Hospital’s Raleigh campus in N.C. is first drone delivery service cleared by FAA for commercial purposes

UPS (NYSE:UPS) Chairman and CEO David Abney emphasizes patients, not packages, in the company’s new drive toward drone technology in medical laboratory specimen transport and logistics.

Abney closed Day 1 sessions of the 24th Annual Executive War College on Lab and Pathology Management (EWC) which continues through Thursday in New Orleans.

“Healthcare is a strategic imperative for us,” Abney said. “We deliver a lot of important things, but lab [shipments] are critical, and they’re very much a part of patient care.”

UPS entered the healthcare sector in 2000 with its acquisition of Livingston HealthCare. In 2016, the company acquired Marken, a move that Abney said, “sent a clear message to our customers that we were taking healthcare and clinical trials very seriously.”

UPS Chairman and CEO David Abney (above) explained the company’s new drive toward drone technology in medical laboratory specimen transport and logistics. Abney closed Day 1 sessions at the 24th Annual Executive War College on Lab and Pathology Management. (Photo copyright: DARK Daily.)

Clinical Laboratory Specimens Delivered by Drone

With healthcare deliveries already a big part of UPS’ ground business, the company now moves lab specimens by drone on WakeMed’s hospital campus in Raleigh, N.C. The effort marks the first commercial daily drone service to be cleared by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for lab specimen transport, and it is made possible through UPS’s new partnership with Menlo Park, Calif.-based Matternet.

Matternet Founder and CEO Andreas Raptopoulos described how the new technology is impacting turnaround time, specimen stability, and viability. The “Future of Lab Logistics” session at EWC, featuring Raptopoulos and Shannon DeMar, Senior Marketing Manager Healthcare Strategy at UPS in Atlanta, Ga., brought questions about FAA regulations, risk mitigation, and more. Laboratory leaders are looking at how to take their logistics to the next level.

On-Demand/Same-Day Delivery of Medical Lab Samples

The UPS/Matternet program represents a major milestone for unmanned aviation in the United States, according to UPS, in a recent release. Currently, the majority of medical samples and specimens are transported across WakeMed’s expanding health system by courier cars. The addition of drone transport provides an option for on-demand and same-day delivery, the ability to avoid roadway delays, increase medical delivery efficiency, lower costs, and improve the patient experience.

North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT), which is working to leverage drones to expand healthcare access for the residents of North Carolina, supported Matternet in conducting first-round test flights using the company’s drone technology on WakeMed’s campus in August 2018 as part of the FAA’s Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) Integration Pilot Program (IPP).

More to Come at EWC 2019

How drones, sensors, and new technologies are poised to increase the quality and accuracy of specimen transport and logistics represented just a slice of the first full day of sessions at Executive War College. UPS is an official partner and sponsor.

Also speaking at the 24th Annual Executive War College on Lab and Pathology Management:

Evolving market trends are creating both concern and opportunities for the clinical laboratory industry. New sources of revenue are essential at a time when fee-for-service prices for lab tests are decreasing.

Early registration is already open for 2020 Executive War College, happening April 28-29, in New Orleans.

Liz Carey

Related Information:

WakeMed Uses Drone to Deliver Patient Specimens

24th Annual Executive War College on Lab and Pathology Management

UPS Drones Are Now Moving Blood Samples Over North Carolina

UPS Partners with Matternet to Transport Medical Samples Via Drone Across Hospital System in Raleigh, N.C.

Drones Used to Deliver Clinical Laboratory Specimens in Switzerland

Demonstration project to move lab specimens by drone was successfully conducted in this alpine nation by Swiss Post and an eight-hospital health system

Delivering clinical laboratory specimens from point A to point B while maintaining the quality and integrity of critical samples is an ongoing issue for medical laboratories and pathology groups worldwide. This is especially true in countries prone to long winters and large amounts of snow. Ground transportation in those areas often experience delays, which can prevent hospitals from receiving needed test results and progressing with treatments that could save lives.

Switzerland is now taking the lead in using drones to transport medical laboratory specimens. In what is believed to be a global first, Ticino EOC, an eight-hospital medical group in Lugano, Switzerland, partnered with Swiss Post (Switzerland’s postal service) and transportation technology manufacturer Matternet of Menlo Park, Calif., to successfully transported laboratory samples between two of Ticino EOC’s hospitals by air using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), commonly called drones. The samples arrived in good conditions after sailing high above blocked roadways. This demonstration project showed that drones can be used to safely deliver much needed lab specimens in both urban and remote rural medical settings.

Drones Present Opportunities for Medical Providers

The Ticino EOC group consists of eight hospital locations:

  1. Lugano Regional Hospital;
  2. Three locations of the Regional Hospital of Bellinzona and Valli (Bellinzona, Faido and Acquarossa);
  3. Mendrisio Regional Hospital;
  4. Locarno Regional Hospital;
  5. Novation Rehabilitation Clinic; and
  6. Oncological Institute of Italian Switzerland.

Matternet’s M2 drone is a quadcopter that travels up to 12 miles on a single battery charge. At just over 2.5 feet in diameter, the M2 can transport parcels up to 4.4 pounds. It cruises at about 22 miles/hour at an altitude of approximately164 to 328 feet above the ground.

According to Matternet’s website, the M2 is “engineered with encrypted communications, a parachute, precision landing, and a host of other safety features” and is “designed to be safe around people and infrastructure.”

Matternet received certification from the Swiss Federal Office for Civil Aviation (FOCA) to fly the drones at any time of the day. FOCA, along with Swiss Post, handle any regulatory issues involved in transporting human blood tissue and other medical laboratory specimens by drone and over public spaces.

“This is a big milestone for us. It means we can operate our technology throughout Switzerland. This will open a big opportunity in medical and e-commerce,” stated Andreas Raptopoulos, Matternet’s cofounder and CEO, in a TechCrunch article.


Matternet’s M2 drone

Matternet’s M2 drone (above) has been used to deliver biological samples between two hospitals in the town of Lugano, Switzerland. (Photo copyrights: Matternet/Swiss Post.)

An additional safety certification is still needed before Swiss Post adds medical drone deliveries to their official services. The packaging that will contain blood samples or any other biohazard materials still requires approval. Swiss Post hopes to be using the drone service regularly for the transportation of lab samples by 2018.

Each drone can be launched using a smartphone application. The launching and landing sites transmit an infrared signal that the drone homes in on. It then delivers the specimens to their predetermined destinations. In the event of an in-flight failure, the drone discharges a parachute and lands.

Delivery by UAV Not New to Healthcare

This is not the first venture to use drones in the field of healthcare. Zipline, a logistics company based in Silicon Valley, is working with the Rwandan government to deliver blood supplies to rural clinics by drone. The company’s website states that, as of May 2017, they have completed over 350 deliveries of blood products to hospitals in Rwanda.

An article appearing in the scientific journal PLOS ONE, highlighted how important drones can be in serving people in rural and economically impoverished areas. Drones can provide healthcare workers with fast access to lab specimens for diagnosis and treatment in areas where roads are impassable or do not exist.

Researchers for that study proved that the movement of the drones does not have any effect on blood samples, which is a crucial element in transporting medical laboratory specimens.

In a Johns Hopkins Medicine news release, one of the authors of the paper, Timothy Kien Amukele, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor of Pathology at Johns Hopkins University, noted the research team had initial concerns about the effects the acceleration and jostling of the drones would have on the laboratory specimens.

“Such movements could have destroyed blood cells or prompted blood to coagulate and I thought all kinds of blood tests might be affected. But our study shows they weren’t, so that was cool,” Amukele stated.

Pathologist Timothy Amukele, MD, PhD

Pathologist Timothy Amukele, MD, PhD (above left), teamed with engineers at Johns Hopkins to develop a drone courier system capable of transporting blood to clinical laboratories. (Photo copyright: Johns Hopkins Medicine.)

For the study, Amukele and his team collected blood samples from 56 healthy volunteers and drove the samples to a drone launching field. Half of the samples were then driven to a clinical laboratory for processing and the other half were placed on the drones for flights lasting from six to 38 minutes.

Comparison of Clinical Lab Specimens Transported by Ground and by Drone

Both the flown and the non-flown samples underwent 33 common medical laboratory tests. The test results showed almost no difference between the two groups of samples. A test for carbon dioxide was the only one that generated different results, but the team did not know if that was due to the movement of the drones or the fact that the samples sat for up to eight hours before being tested.

Amukele is taking part in a collaboration between Johns Hopkins and Makerere University in Uganda. He noted that they would like to perform a study in a more remote location, possibly in Africa, where clinical laboratories can sometimes be more than 60-miles from clinics.

“A drone could go 100 km [approximately 62 miles] in 40 minutes,” noted Amukele in the Johns Hopkins news release. “They’re less expensive than motorcycles, are not subject to traffic delays, and the technology already exists for the drone to be programmed to ‘home’ to certain GPS coordinates, like a carrier pigeon.”

Opportunities for Clinical Laboratories

Use of drones is subject to each country’s laws and regulations. In the US, drone use is regulated by guidelines established by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). In some cases, the drone must be registered with the FAA and the operator must have a remote pilot certificate to legally fly a drone.

These projects highlight the critical need for cost-effective, safe, dependable transportation of biological materials in a timely manner. For pathologists and clinical laboratories, drones could prove to be another opportunity to provide high-quality, value- added services to healthcare consumers and other medical professionals.

—JP Schlingman

Related Information:

Swiss Post Using Drones to Transport Medical Samples between Hospitals

Medical Drones Poised to Take Off

Doctors Test Drones to Speed Up Delivery of Lab Tests

Drones Can Be Used to Fly Blood Samples to Remote Medical Clinics

Drones Deliver Healthcare

Medical Drones Will Thrive in Healthcare: A Safe Road to Health

Meet Matternet, the Drone Delivery Startup That’s Actually Delivering

Matternet Cleared to Fly Blood Samples in Delivery Drones over Swiss Cities

Swiss Post Drone to Fly Laboratory Samples for Ticino Hospitals

Proof-of-Concept Study Shows Successful Transport of Blood Samples with Small Drones

Blood from the Sky: Zipline’s Ambitious Medical Drone Delivery in Africa