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Clinical Laboratories and Pathology Groups

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Clinical Laboratories and Pathology Groups

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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

Boston-based American Robotics is approved to operate its Scout unmanned aircraft in rural areas and below a certain altitude, achieving a milestone that may allow the industry to ‘truly take off’

Routine drone delivery of clinical laboratory specimens and medical supplies moved a step closer to reality with the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) green light to American Robotics (AR) to operate its fully automated drones without on-site pilots or on-the-ground spotters.

The Massachusetts-based company becomes the first drone operator to receive an FAA Certificate of Waiver, allowing it to operate its unmanned aircraft “beyond the visual line of sight (BVLOS) of the remote pilot in command.”

According to a news release, “Prior waivers and certifications awarded by the FAA required visual observers (VOs) stationed along the flight path to keep eyes on the airspace at all times, or required other burdensome restrictions such as infrastructure masking. … With this approval, American Robotics’ Scout System is now the first drone technology allowed to continuously operate without this costly human requirement.”

The FAA is restricting American Robotics’ operations to specific rural areas and at altitudes below 400 feet, with a maximum takeoff weight of 20 pounds, The Hill reported. Nevertheless, should AR’s automated Scout System prove safe, pilotless drones may soon be delivering clinical laboratory specimens and supplies to remote areas as well as to more densely populated hospital systems.

The FAA’s Certificate of Waiver is effective until January 31, 2023.

A New Era of Drone Delivery for Hospitals and Clinical Laboratories

Even with the restrictions, the FAA’s decision moves the commercial drone industry ever closer to routine transport of medical laboratory specimens and medical supplies by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV).

“With these approvals, American Robotics is ushering in a new era of widespread automated drone operations,” Reese Mozer, CEO and co-founder of American Robotics, said in the news release. “Decades’ worth of promise and projection are finally coming to fruition. We are proud to be the first company to meet the FAA’s comprehensive safety requirements, which had previously restricted the viability of drone use in the commercial sector.”

The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported that the FAA’s decision signals the agency’s “broader effort to authorize widespread flights by shifting away from case-by-case exemptions for specific vehicles performing specific tasks.” According to the WSJ, the FAA’s approval documents state that American Robotics’ proposed operations will provide the agency with “critical data for use in evaluating BVLOS [beyond the visual line of sight] operations from offsite locations.”

American Robotics Scout drone

Each American Robotics Scout drone (above) is stored within a weatherproof base station that enables autonomous charging, data processing, analysis, and data transmission. According to the news release, “Once installed in the field, all facets of Scout’s operation are automated, allowing this technology to gather and analyze ultra-high-resolution data multiple times per day for years without expensive human labor.” Clinical laboratory managers will want to watch for progress in using drones to deliver medical supplies. (Photo copyright: American Robotics.)

FAA Approval a ‘Game Changer’

In its quest to receive FAA approval, American Robotics completed a four-year testing program around its Scout line of UAV products. According to the company, Scout systems flew as many as 10 automated missions per day in 2020 for industrial and agricultural customers in multiple states capturing a variety of advanced data.

The Scout system addresses safety concerns by using acoustic detect-and-avoid technology to maintain a safe distance from other aircraft while also avoiding birds or other potential obstacles.

“The commercial drone industry is growing quickly and providing significant benefits to the American public, but enabling expanded operations beyond visual line of sight is critical for the industry to truly take off,” Lisa Ellman, JD, Partner at Hogan Lovells and Executive Director of the Commercial Drone Alliance, said in the news release.

“Automated beyond visual line of site operations are particularly important to opening the commercial sectors to the drone economy, including the agriculture and industrial verticals. Key to these operations is the use and FAA acceptance of new and innovative safety technologies, such as detect and avoid sensors and software-enabled automation.”

The agricultural and energy industries are seen as key beneficiaries of this latest FAA action. Lance Ruppert, Director of Agronomy Marketing and Technology at Growmark Inc., a leading US grower cooperative, calls the American Robotics’ approval a “game changer.”

“Our interest in American Robotics’ technology started with the desire to have a drone imagery solution that was reliable, scalable, and executed with minimal human resources,” Ruppert said in the news release. “This technology, along with the FAA approvals to operate it without humans on the ground, is key to making drones a widespread reality in our industry.”

Drone Delivery of Clinical Laboratory Specimens Worldwide

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 how the 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.

And past Dark Daily ebriefings reported on drone delivery of medical supplies being conducted in Virginia, North Carolina, Australia, Switzerland, and Rwanda. With potentially fully automated systems just around the corner, there’s no question the use of drones to transport critical medical supplies and biological specimens is poised for an amazing breakthrough.

While the FAA’s approval of the first fully automated commercial drone flights may not have an immediate impact on clinical laboratories, the increasing use of commercial drones brings drone transportation of lab specimens and other medical supplies one step closer to reality.

—Andrea Downing Peck

Related Information

American Robotics Becomes First Company Approved by FAA to Operate Automated Drones without Human Operators on Site

FAA Decision: Jan. 14, 2021

FAA Approves First Fully Automated Commercial Drone Flights

US Department of Transportation FAA Certificate of Waiver

The FAA Just Greenlit This Drone to Fly Autonomously without a Human Nearby

FAA Approves First Fully Automated Commercial Drone Flights

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?

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
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