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The sky is the limit for medical drones

Medical drone flies in the air carrying a UPS package

For some people, the worst part of a blood test is not the needle – it’s waiting for the results. Every second can feel like an eternity when you’re waiting for an important diagnosis. At WakeMed’s flagship hospital and campus in Raleigh, North Carolina, though, something different is in the air.

Flying at speeds up to 43 mph and able to carry payloads of up to five pounds, Matternet M2 drones will transport medical samples taken from the doctor’s office and deliver them to the central lab on campus. These unmanned aerial vehicles will supplement transport services provided by courier cars and reduce transit time to less than five minutes. UPS, in collaboration with drone manufacturer Matternet, the FAA and the North Carolina Department of Transportation, will manage this new program.

What is it?

Here’s a hypothetical example of what an unmanned aerial vehicle might do on the WakeMed campus: Emily, a type 1 diabetic, is pregnant with her first child. Her doctor is monitoring her pregnancy closely because she takes insulin to manage her diabetes. At her 20 week appointment, they take a sample of her blood to check her A1C levels.

Emily’s blood will be sealed in a bag and then locked inside the Matternet M2 quadcopter payload box. The drone will fly along a predetermined flight path, monitored by a specially trained Matternet Remote Pilot-in-Command and UPS airline personnel, to a fixed landing pad at WakeMed’s central pathology lab. Guided by GPS navigation, the drone can operate in winds up to 11 mph and moderate rain or snow. If needed, the operator could interrupt the flight and send the drone to a safe location. Thankfully, the weather is clear during this particular flight.

Approximately three minutes after takeoff, the drone touches down safely on the pathology lab landing pad. A lab technician retrieves the sample and starts testing Emily’s blood.

Medical drones help create a more efficient healthcare supply chain

From Emily's perspective, using a drone to expedite her blood test makes sense intuitively. From a business perspective, though, medical drones will do more than decrease lab turnaround time; they may also make the healthcare supply chain more efficient. “Using drones to bring blood and other diagnostic specimens from medical facilities to central labs may provide faster, more predictable turnaround of test results, and more efficient lab operations,” says Chris Cassidy, UPS president of Global Healthcare and Life Sciences Strategy. The learnings from this program will inform how healthcare technology can be applied to improve transportation services at other hospitals. “This technology allows hospital systems to transport medical items at an unprecedented level of speed and predictability, resulting in improved patient care and operational savings,” says Matternet CEO, Andreas Raptopoulos.

Flying into the future

“Drone transport will improve speed of deliveries, enhance access to care and create healthier communities,” says Dr. Stuart Ginn, WakeMed physician and medical director of WakeMed Innovations. As healthcare technology advances, the sky is the limit for medical drones. For Emily, that’s good news: her diabetes is well managed and she’ll be welcoming a healthy baby boy in a few months.

Find out more

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