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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
Through partnerships with CVS, Utah Health, and Kaiser Permanente the new UPSFF drone service could deliver savings to healthcare consumers and reduced TATs for clinical laboratories
United Parcel Service (UPS) successfully delivered by air medical prescriptions from a CVS pharmacy to customers’ residences in Cary N.C. This was the next step in the package delivery company’s plan to become a major player in the use of drones in healthcare and it has major implications for clinical laboratories and pathology groups.
Earlier this year, Dark Daily’s sister publication, The Dark Report (TDR), covered 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, a company in Menlo Park, Calif., to fly clinical laboratory specimens from a medical complex of physicians’ offices to the health system’s clinical laboratory more than 100 times. (See TDR, “WakeMed Uses Drone to Deliver Patient Specimens,” April 8, 2019.)
In October, UPS signed a letter of intent with CVS Health to “explore drone deliveries, expanding UPS’ sights from hospital campuses to the homes of CVS customers as it builds out its drone delivery subsidiary,” Modern Healthcare reported.
In November, UPS succeeded in these goals with UPS Flight Forward, Inc. (UPSFF), UPS’ new drone delivery service which, according to its website, is the first “drone airline” to receive full Part 135 certification (Package Delivery by Drone) from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
“This drone delivery, the first of its kind in the industry, demonstrates what’s possible for our customers who can’t easily make it into our stores,” said Kevin Hourican, EVP, CVS Health and President of CVS Pharmacy, in a UPS press release. “CVS is exploring many types of delivery options for urban, suburban, and rural markets. We see big potential in drone delivery in rural communities where life-saving medications are needed and consumers at times cannot conveniently access one of our stores.”
Drones Deliver Clinical Lab Specimens and Pharmaceuticals
Since March, UPSFF has completed more than 1,500 drone
flights (with 8,000 clinical laboratory samples) at WakeMed in Raleigh, N.C.
UPS’ drone delivery decreased delivery time of clinical laboratory specimens
between WakeMed’s physician office building to the hospital-based lab from 19
minutes to three minutes, according to UPS data reported in October by an Advisory
Board daily briefing.
WakeMed is seeking to “provide advantages in patient care
that cannot be obtained in any other way” Michael
Weinstein, MD, PhD, Director of Pathology Laboratories at WakeMed, told TDR.
With the signing of the UPS (NYSE:UPS)-UPSFF (UPS Flight
Forward)-CVS (NYSE:CVS.N) agreement in October—and initial first flights which
took place on November 1 between a CVS pharmacy and customers’ residences in
Cary, NC—UPS completed the “the first revenue-generating drone delivery of a
medical prescription from a CVS pharmacy directly to a consumer’s home,” the
UPS press release states.
Other Healthcare Organizations on Board
WakeMed and CVS are not alone in UPS drone deployment for
healthcare deliveries. Advisory Board reported that UPSFF also partnered
with other healthcare systems to provide drone flights for on-campus delivery of
pharmaceuticals and medical supplies, including:
to move pharmaceuticals, supplies, and records to “qualifying” medical
Permanente: to send medical supplies between buildings at different campus
of Utah Health’s hospital campuses: to transport biological samples,
documents, supplies, and medical instruments between their facilities.
Drone delivery of clinical laboratory specimens is swiftly become a global reality that labs should watch closely. Past Dark Daily e-briefings reported on drone deliveries being conducted in Virginia, North Carolina, Australia, Switzerland, and Rwanda.
Pathologists and medical laboratory managers need to stay
abreast of these developments, as widespread drone delivery of clinical laboratory
specimens may happen on a surprisingly fast timeline. Drone delivery already
has TAT improvement implications and could be a way for labs to differentiate
their businesses and enhance workflow.
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 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 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
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
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
“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
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
“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.”
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.
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.
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.