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Clinical Laboratories and Pathology Groups

Hosted by Robert Michel
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SUNY Upstate Medical University and NUAIR Complete Trial Delivery Service of Medical Supplies on Campus Using Unmanned Drones

Goal of university’s yearlong CHURP test was to validate the use of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), commonly known as drones, in the delivery of medical supplies across SUNY’s campus

Just as hospital systems worldwide are exploring the feasibility of using drone technology to deliver clinical laboratory specimens and medical supplies between healthcare settings and medical laboratories, SUNY Upstate Medical University also has joined the growing list of healthcare providers that have added unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, to their specimen/supplies delivery services.

As part of the COVID-19 Humanitarian UAS (Unmanned Aircraft Systems) Response Partnership (CHURP), in January, State University of New York (SUNY) Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, N.Y., along with project partners NUAIR, a nonprofit alliance that provides expertise in UAS operations, and Virginia-based drone services provider DroneUp, began testing delivers of a COVID-19 test kit from one rooftop to another on SUNY’s campus.

Traditional delivery of similar items normally takes about seven minutes. The drone delivered the same test kit in just two minutes, according to Government Technology(GT).

Then, “To prove that drone deliveries can be scaled up, the team conducted more medical deliveries in three locations throughout Syracuse two weeks ago, sending supplies from the hospital to a medical laboratory, from the hospital to a surgery center, and from a pharmacy to a second hospital,” GT reported.

Tony Basile, Chief Operations Officer at NUAIR, told GT the flight was a “proof of concept demonstration to show that medical deliveries can be made by drone when speed is essential, such as when tissue samples taken from a surgery patient must be delivered rapidly to a laboratory in a different building.”

Special FAA Waiver Allows Drone Flights Over Certain People

Working with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to secure a 107.39 Operations Over Human Beings waiver to transport the testing kits, DroneUp operated the flights over Syracuse.

The FAA’s 107.39 waiver allows a drone operator to fly over people who are not participating in the operation and over those who are not covered under a structure or within a stationary vehicle. The January flight marked the first time the FAA’s 107.39 waiver was used for such a drone operation, a DroneUp press release notes.

The SUNY and the NUAIR alliance began formulating the concept of using drones to make medical deliveries more than a year and ago. At that time, there were concerns that a nearby highway project would disrupt normal clinical laboratory specimen delivery operations. The highway separates the hospital from a surgery center and finding a way to expedite deliveries despite slow traffic was essential, GT reported.

“They’re not going to want to wait 20 minutes for a tissue sample to get to the lab because the highway is coming down,” Basile told GT.

Challenges Encountered with Drone Delivery of Clinical Specimens and Supplies

In late spring, the team conducted additional deliveries to further prove the efficacy of using drones to transport medical supplies. They successfully transported supplies via UAV from the SUNY hospital to a clinical laboratory, from the hospital to a separate surgery center, and from a pharmacy to another hospital in the area.

“We conducted 52 successful deliveries throughout the week and were able to streamline the process, getting to about five deliveries an hour,” Basile wrote in a NUAIR article he penned, titled, “Making Drone Deliveries Scalable and Economically Viable.”

NUAIR drone

The drone used during the NUAIR test flights was equipped with a parachute in case of a mechanical failure and was only flown late at night. Basile believes the FAA will likely require medical delivery drones to have six to eight motors (shown above) as a security measure in case one or two motors fail. A common type of drone, known as a quadcopter, has only four motors and it is unable to fly if even one motor fails. (Photo copyright: NUAIR.)

Although the unmanned delivery flights were successful, SUNY experienced challenges with using drones to make medical deliveries. Those challenges included:

  • Economics: The NUAIR test flights required five people to conduct the flights, which is more costly than paying one driver to deliver the supplies.
  • FAA restrictions: The FAA currently does not allow biohazardous materials or controlled substances to be transported by drones due to the risk of public exposure if a crash occurs.
  • Device approval: The FAA is still in the process of evaluating which drone models will be permitted to carry medical supplies.
  • Weather: Drones cannot fly in inclement weather conditions.

“[Drones] are susceptible to strong winds and icing,” Basile told GT.

However, Basile believes that with more research and test flights the challenges will be resolved, and that drones will be used for medical deliveries in the future.

“I think they’re certainly going to be used,” he told GT. “Whether it’s soon depends on what you mean by soon.”

Drones Deliver Clinical Laboratory Specimens and Medical Supplies Worldwide

Other countries are increasingly using drones to deliver COVID-19 test kits and samples to and from remote areas.

In, “Hospitals in United States and Germany Team Up with Matternet and UPS to Make Medical Laboratory Deliveries by Drone the New Normal,” Dark Daily reported on California-based Matternet’s launch of 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.

In 2018, Dark Daily reported on automated logistics company Zipline’s use of fixed-wing drones called “Zips” to provide on-demand access to vital blood supplies in Rwanda and Tanzania. The Silicon Valley company transported more than 5,500 units of blood in 2017 to 12 regional hospitals from a base in the east of Rwanda, reported The Guardian. Zipline began operating in the African nation in 2016 and quickly cut blood delivery time from four hours to an average of about 30 minutes.

And in “Swiss Post Medical Drone Carrying Clinical Laboratory Specimens Crashes in Switzerland,” we reported that the medical drone revolution experienced a setback when drone-pioneer Swiss Post (Switzerland’s postal service) saw one of its American-made Matternet drones crash into Lake Zurich, Switzerland. According to a Swiss Post news release, the drone went down carrying a “non-vital” blood sample (one that had been previously analyzed). The flight was part of a recently launched pilot program transporting blood samples between Zurich’s central laboratory and the Hirslanden Klinik Im Park, a private clinic on the opposite side of Lake Zurich.

Although not all drone delivery flights end in success, these projects clearly demonstrate how safe and reliable drone delivery of medical supplies and clinical laboratory specimens could one day be beneficial to medical communities.

Such drone deliveries will likely help medical professionals expedite diagnoses and treatment options for patients, especially in remote areas where land transportation would be much less timely.

JP Schlingman

Related Information

Syracuse, N.Y., Hospital Tests Medical Delivery Drones

In Fight against Coronavirus, Ghana Uses Drones to Speed up Testing

Drone Jobs: CHURP Drone Package Delivery at SUNY

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

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

Swiss Post Medical Drone Carrying Clinical Laboratory Specimens Crashes in Switzerland

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

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

UPS Expands Drone Delivery Service for Transporting Clinical Laboratory Specimens Across Healthcare Systems to Include Delivering Prescriptions from CVS Pharmacy to Customers’ Homes

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

Walmart, Quest Diagnostics, and DroneUp Collaborate on Pilot Project to Deliver COVID-19 Laboratory Tests to Consumers in Select Cities

American Robotics Gets FAA Approval to Operate First Fully Automated Drone for Commercial Use ‘Beyond Visual Line of Sight’ Bringing Unmanned Delivery of Medical Supplies and Clinical Laboratory Specimens a Step Closer to Reality

Walmart, Quest Diagnostics, and DroneUp Collaborate on Pilot Project to Deliver COVID-19 Laboratory Tests to Consumers in Select Cities

Coronavirus pandemic expected to spur wider acceptance of drone delivery services for clinical laboratory specimens and medical supplies

Routine delivery of clinical laboratory specimens and medical supplies by drone moved one step closer to reality with news that Walmart (NYSE:WMT), Quest Diagnostics (NYSE:DGX), and DroneUp of Virginia Beach, Va., are partnering to bring at-home self-collection COVID-19 test kits to residents of several areas hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In its race to keep pace with online retailer Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN), Walmart last September implemented two drone-delivery trials. One, according to Progressive Grocer, is with Tel Aviv, Israel-based drone company Flytrex, to deliver select grocery and household essentials in and around Fayetteville, N.C. The other trial program is with drone company Zipline of San Francisco, to test delivery of certain health and wellness products to areas around Walmart’s headquarters in Bentonville, Ark., Progressive Grocer also reported.

Then, Walmart announced a third pilot project for home delivery—one that could potentially affect clinical laboratories. This time, in collaboration with Quest and DroneUp, Walmart is piloting delivery of at-home COVID-19 collection kits in North Las Vegas, and Cheektowaga, New York, a Walmart news release stated.

Is this yet another example of how the COVID-19 pandemic will continue to drive shifts in delivery of key healthcare services? Probably.

According to Walmart’s news release, “Patients who qualify for drone delivery of the COVID-19 self-collection kits must live in a single-family residence within a 1-mile radius of the designated [Walmart] Supercenters in North Las Vegas and Cheektowaga. The kits will land on the driveway, front sidewalk, or backyard of the customer’s home, depending on where there are cars and trees. There is no delivery or kit cost for customers electing to receive an at-home [COVID-19] kit delivered via drone. Once the kits are delivered, the person will perform a self-administered nasal swab in the privacy of their home and send their sample back to Quest Diagnostics for testing using the included prepaid shipping label.”

Walmart’s home delivery service of at-home COVID-19 test kits video screenshot
Click the image to watch the short video that demonstrates Walmart’s home delivery service of at-home COVID-19 test kits. Clinical laboratories in these areas may wonder how Walmart’s new drone-delivery service will impact their own specimen delivery programs. (Photo/video copyright: Walmart.)

The giant retailer’s expanding use of drone delivery systems will likely lead to greater acceptance among consumers of unmanned aerial vehicles for delivering all sorts of personal items, as well as various types of clinical laboratory specimens. If consumers embrace drone delivery systems, clinical laboratories with existing courier and logistics networks may experience another disruption in how they do business.

In a news release following the announcement of a yet another drone-delivery service of COVID-19 at-home test kits—this time in El Paso, Texas,—Amanda Jenkins, Vice President of Operation Support and Implementation, Walmart US Health and Wellness, said, “Walmart has been serving the El Paso community throughout the pandemic with drive-thru testing sites and extended testing hours, and we wanted to provide another way to access testing that provides convenience and leverages technology, while learning how drones could impact the delivery of healthcare in the future,” KTSM-9 TV reported.

Drone Delivery Systems Worldwide for Healthcare

The United States is not the only country turning to drone technology to speed deliveries and reduce person-to-person contact during the pandemic. A World Economic Forum blog post outlined the critical role drones are playing in China, the world’s most populated country, as it responds to the health crisis.

“At the moment of life and death, the air transport network can significantly confine the flow of people, avoid unnecessary physical contact, and prevent secondary transmission,” Lv Yinxiang, Secretary of the Party Committee of the County People’s Hospital, said in the blog post. “Medical samples delivered through air can shrink the delivery time … while saving precious field resources.”

Amazon also is predicting a bright future for drone delivery of all types of goods. In August, Amazon’s Prime Air drone delivery service received approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to operate its fleet of drones, CNBC reported. Amazon launched its drone project in 2013 and began the process of seeking FAA approval in 2019.

In “UPS Expands Drone Delivery Service for Transporting Clinical Laboratory Specimens Across Healthcare Systems to Include Delivering Prescriptions from CVS Pharmacy to Customers’ Homes,” Dark Daily reported on UPS’ plans to become a major player in healthcare’s use of drones by partnering with CVS Health to not only transport clinical laboratory specimens, but also make pharmacy deliveries to customers’ homes.

And in “WakeMed Uses Drone to Deliver Patient Specimens,” Dark Daily’s sister publication, The Dark Report (TDR), reported on UPS’ launch of a drone delivery service on the WakeMed Health and Hospitals medical campus in Raleigh, N.C. The implementation followed a two-year test period during which UPS used drones manufactured by Matternet of Menlo Park, Calif., to fly clinical laboratory specimens from a medical complex of physicians’ offices to the health system’s clinical laboratory.

COVID-19 Pandemic Drives Drone Delivery System Development

Tom Ward, Walmart’s Senior Vice President for Customer Product, predicts the drone delivery systems being rolled out during the COVID-19 pandemic will increase the use of contactless delivery for all types of deliveries, not just healthcare.

“There’s a lot we can learn from our drone delivery pilots to help determine what roles drones can play in pandemic response, healthcare delivery, and retail,” he said in the Walmart news release. “We hope drone delivery of self-collection kits will shape contactless testing capabilities on a larger scale and continue to bolster the innovative ways Walmart plans to use drone delivery in the future.”

The widespread use of drone technology appears to be soaring to new heights as the COVID-19 pandemic moves forward into the new year. Clinical laboratory managers will want to keep their eyes on the skies as this new delivery system becomes more commonplace and potentially disrupts the way laboratory specimens traditionally have traveled to and from medical laboratories.

—Andrea Downing Peck

Related Information:

Walmart, Quest Diagnostics and DroneUp Pilot COVID-19 At-Home Self-Collection Kit Delivery in Cheektowaga, New York

Walmart Adds Even More Fuel to Drone Delivery

Walmart, Quest Diagnostics and DroneUp Pilot Drone COVID-19 At-Home Self-Collection Kit Delivery in North Las Vegas

Walmart Now Piloting Drone Delivery of COVID-19 At-Home Self-Collection Kits

3 Ways China Is Using Drones to Fight Coronavirus

Amazon Wins FAA Approval for Prime Air Drone Delivery

UPS Expands Drone Delivery Service for Transporting Clinical Laboratory Specimens Across Healthcare Systems to Include Delivering Prescriptions from CVS Pharmacy to Customers’ Homes

WakeMed Uses Drone to Deliver Patient Specimens