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Drone delivery is fundamentally changing healthcare logistics

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"When you need something shipped immediately, when you demand the shortest transit time possible, or in those instances where surface transportation is limited, congested, or in some cases unavailable, drones improve healthcare," explains Mark Taylor, director of the UPS healthcare strategy group. Drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), are fundamentally changing the way we think about healthcare logistics.

Drones in healthcare

Just as the Wright brothers didn’t imagine the space shuttle when the developed their plane, we are just beginning to understand how UAVs can be used in healthcare logistics. Right now, we’re using medical drones to:  

  • Deliver emergency medicines where time is of the essence.
  • Provide life-saving assistance in areas where healthcare infrastructure is otherwise lacking. The fast delivery of blood supplies to women in remote areas of Africa who are hemorrhaging during childbirth can literally mean the difference between life or death.

In addition, the drone delivery of lab specimens is central to the landmark UPS/Matternet partnership with WakeMed Hospital in North Carolina. It’s only a matter of time before drones could be supporting the provision of telemedicine by delivering prescription medication to less mobile patients or patients in rural areas.

Drones and lab logistics

As mentioned, one area where healthcare drones are already making a difference is lab logistics

In developed countries, healthcare decision making is largely driven by diagnostic testing. According to some estimates, approximately 70% of medical decisions in the United States are based on clinical testing conducted in the lab.

With so much depending on medical test results, drone deployment helps smooth out the inflow of samples into clinical labs by ensuring specimens arrive more consistently.

"Instead of having a courier dropping a high number of samples on the dock once or twice a day, you have a steadier flow of samples arriving into your facility, which greatly improves workflow management and increases efficiency," Taylor explains.

The ability of drones to decrease turnaround times is not only good for lab efficiency but can help improve patient outcomes by getting test results to physicians faster.

"In most cases, you cannot properly diagnose without accurate testing,” Taylor remarks. “That’s why accelerating the speed of diagnostic testing can absolutely save lives, especially in a life-threatening situation where minutes matter."

With approximately 7 billion clinical lab tests conducted annually in the United States, medical drones represent a significant opportunity for increasing the operating efficiency of labs and supporting patient health.

The WakeMed project and drone technology

The leading example of medical drone deployment in the United States centers on the WakeMed hospital system in Raleigh, North Carolina.

This collaboration between WakeMed, drone technology company Matternet, and UPS arose from a 2017 presidential directive that called on the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the Department of Transportation to test commercial drone operations across a range of use cases.

Deploying drone technology to supplement WakeMed’s courier network, specimens are transported from a campus location to WakeMed’s central lab for testing in a matter of minutes. 

The drone delivery process is straightforward and effective:

  • A patient’s specimen is placed inside the drone’s payload box.
  • A remote pilot in command hand carries the payload box and loads the aircraft.  
  • Before launching the drone, a pre-flight checklist is completed to ensure safe operating conditions.
  • The Matternet M2 quadcopter takes off and lands at the designated landing area across WakeMed’s campus.
  • Once the drone arrives at the landing area in WakeMed's main hospital, an operator approaches the drone, releases the payload box, and hand carries the specimens to the lab for processing.

Since the program’s inception in March 2019, the WakeMed project has successfully completed more than 1,500 deliveries. WakeMed staff point to real-life instances where the accelerated turnaround time on lab specimens has helped physicians avoid delays and make faster decisions on treatment.

The project has also caught the attention of hospitals across the country eager to explore a leading-edge technology that enables physicians to make better decisions faster and ultimately improve patient outcomes.

Strengthening healthcare infrastructure in Africa

Rwanda may be a long way from Raleigh NC, but the impact of drone technology knows no boundaries.

Partnering with vaccine alliance Gavi and drone-maker Zipline, The UPS Foundation is committed to investing in the deployment of drone technology to strengthen healthcare infrastructure in Africa.

“The challenge in Africa is that access to care is often extremely limited by the infrastructure,” Mark Taylor explains. “A road that can take several hours to travel, or that may have been completely washed out by storms, can now be traveled in the air in a matter of minutes."

In Rwanda, drones began transporting emergency blood supplies in 2016 to women living in remote areas who are hemorrhaging following childbirth and whose lives may be at risk. 

Operating around the clock out of four distribution centers across the central African country, the drone program can reach more than 2,000 health facilities nationwide. Zipline drones now deliver more than 65% of Rwanda’s blood supply outside of the capital, Kigali.

The medical drone program recently expanded to include provision of almost 150 high-priority products, including vaccines and other life-saving medications. In April 2019, the initiative expanded to Ghana, where it will include the transport of critical pharmaceuticals and vaccines as well as blood.

“The program’s ongoing success in Rwanda and Ghana demonstrates that the collective effort of a public-private partnership focused on advanced supply chain technologies can enhance access to life-saving medical commodities throughout Africa,” remarks Eduardo Martinez, president of The UPS Foundation.

The future of drones and healthcare logistics

Drone infrastructure and the regulatory environment are evolving fast.

The long-term prospects for drone deployment in healthcare are promising. Wherever efficiency of delivery is a decisive factor, drones have a role to play.

"I can see medical devices being moved around hospital campuses soon if there is a critical part or piece that is needed for a surgery at a different part of the campus,” Taylor says. “We are also designing certified packaging solutions for a range of temperature controls.”

Spurred by such ambitions and in the pursuit of longer distances and greater resilience to adverse weather, drone manufacturers are working hard to develop their technologies. The benefits of increased range are significant: flying further will unlock the opportunity to support the healthcare supply chain beyond the perimeter of the hospital campus.

It will also help integrate drone technology into hospital outreach programs with area partners such as pharmaceutical manufacturers and local distributors.

Expanding the deployment of drones

From expanding the protocols for drone take-off and landing to experimenting with new, potentially more efficient routes, there’s still much to glean from the WakeMed project.

In this spirit, UPS continues to work closely with the FAA to help the agency test and define what will be the rules for broader commercialization. UPS has become the first U.S. company to receive FAA Standard Part 135 certification to operate commercial drone flights through a subsidiary business, UPS Flight Forward Inc. Matternet’s M2 drone logistics system is also the first system to be authorized by the FAA for use under Part 135 after it was evaluated and validated by the FAA as meeting the safety requirements to operate with an air carrier certificate.

The formation of a drone delivery company and the application to the FAA to begin regular operations represent a big step forward for the deployment of drones in healthcare.

“We’ll work from our learnings at WakeMed Hospital to assess how we can improve patient care through the use of drones at other hospitals and medical facilities across the U.S.,” says Bala Ganesh of UPS’s Advanced Technology Group.

What’s next for medical drones?

Drone technology has clearly captured the public imagination. But can this technology truly revolutionize healthcare logistics?

“Drones provide a brand-new mode of transportation that can provide the industry with more options, more flexibility, faster transit time, lower cost, and ultimately improved patient experience and patient outcomes," says Taylor. “It’s a game changer.”

From drone deployment to other advanced technologies, learn more about how UPS healthcare logistics can bring leading-edge solutions to your business.

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