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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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