Matternet's M2 starts regular medical deliveries for United Parcel Service in the US after thousands of deliveries in Switzerland for Swiss Post. Image: UPS

UPS, Matternet partner for medical deliveries in North Carolina

Logistics • freight • delivery

United Parcel Service (UPS), the logistics giant, has partnered with California’s Matternet and WakeMed Health & Hospitals for regular hourly delivery of medical samples across the hospital system’s campus near Raleigh in the US state of North Carolina, with oversight by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT).

The initiative is part of the FAA’s Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) Integration Pilot Program (IPP). Test flights were conducted last August at WakeMed, a large private nonprofit hospital system serving central & eastern North Carolina. Matternet, which counts Boeing’s HorizonX as a major investor, has years of experience with pilot programs and regular medical sample deliveries in Switzerland, Malawi, the Dominican Republic, and Haiti, and is preparing for tests with UC San Diego Health in San Diego, California, another FAA UAS-IPP site.

Matternet’s M2 quadcopter c-drone has been designed for autonomous flight, pickup, and delivery of a small case called a payload box. For the WakeMed project, the case has been finished in UPS livery. However, WakeMed has chosen not to use Matternet’s Station autonomous docking, charging, and loading/unloading station, preferring instead “smart” landing pads which emit a beacon for the c-drone to lock on to for landing. Although flight is autonomous along GPS waypoints, two pilots on either end of the flight monitor the takeoff, landing, and voyage via a smartphone app, ready to intervene if necessary. (The pilots wear yellow vests emblazoned: FAA Licensed Commercial Drone Pilot – Do Not Disturb.)

UPS presented a short video illustrating how the sample delivery system will work. The sample, for example blood, is labeled and sealed and placed in the payload box which is latched shut. A sign placed on the case indicates to the drone pilot that it is ready for transit. The pilot brings the case to the drone, attaches it, and initiates autonomous takeoff. The c-drone transits the large WakeMed campus in 3 minutes and 15 seconds and autonomously lands on the beacon pad under the watchful eye of the second remote pilot who has monitored the flight. The pilot then detaches the case and brings it to the lab for processing. UPS indicated that this procedure is several times faster than by courier car.

I asked UPS and Matternet for more information about the system, in particular if the “smart” landing pads recharge the drone’s lithium-ion batteries. Jim O’Sullivan, Head of US Regulatory Strategy at Matternet, told the C-Drone Review:

Flights happen once per hour, typically 7 flights per day. The M2 total flight time on a fully-charged battery is about 25 minutes. M2 batteries are removable and are charged externally much faster than could be accomplished by inductive charging; the ability to swap batteries maximizes the efficiency and uptime of the M2 system. The payload boxes are stowed by four electrically-actuated metal rods that hold it securely in place. The M2 is capable of flight in up to and including moderate rain and winds of 8 m/s gusting to 12 m/s although we are adhering to lower wind limits at WakeMed as authorized by the FAA. The operational envelope ranges from -10C to 40C. Flight into known icing conditions (e.g. freezing rain, hail) is not allowed. Matternet has been authorized to fly at night at WakeMed and nationwide, and will do so if the customer requests it.

Donald Gintzig, WakeMed President & CEO, said:

Drone transport will improve speed of deliveries at a lower cost, enhance access to care and create healthier communities. WakeMed is committed to innovation, and we believe drone technology has the potential to achieve transformative improvements in health and health care delivery.

Chris Cassidy, UPS President of Global Healthcare & Life Sciences Strategy, said:

UPS Healthcare & Life Sciences is excited to expand on our current lab specimen logistics portfolio to drive step change in today’s delivery models. Using drones to bring blood and other diagnostic specimens from medical facilities to central labs will improve transport efficiencies like never before. And with fewer vehicles on the road, we’ll generate less environmental impact.

Although this project is a first in the United States, Matternet has already made thousands of medical deliveries, particularly in Switzerland with investor Swiss Post. Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) flights there started last June with airspace data provided by AirMap.