When a patient at a surgery center in Raleigh, North Carolina, has their blood drawn, a drone now delivers the sample to a central lab for testing. The new delivery system, launched at the WakeMed hospital and campus, is the first regular commercial drone delivery in the United States.
Until now, any samples from outlying clinics in the healthcare system had to be delivered by a courier making multiple stops on the way to the lab along a route that can take as long as three hours. “Even samples marked ‘stat,’ or urgent, which follow a more direct route, can take up to an hour for delivery,” says Stuart Ginn, an ear, nose, and throat surgeon and medical director for WakeMed Innovations, a team that works on implementing and accelerating creative solutions within the healthcare system. “This transit time means a longer delay for the clinician awaiting results for their patients.”
Matternet, the drone delivery company partnering with UPS to provide the service for WakeMed, already operates a similar system in Switzerland. In one recent case, a patient with a heart condition went to the emergency room at a regional Swiss hospital in the evening, after the hospital’s onsite lab had closed and couldn’t test his blood sample. In the past, the hospital would have used an ambulance to deliver the sample to another hospital nearby, in a journey that could take an hour. The drones made the trip within 15 minutes, and saving that time made a meaningful difference in the patient’s treatment, Matternet says.
“Fundamentally, our system gives fast, very predictable access,” says Andreas Raptopoulos, founder and CEO of Matternet. Health systems with sprawling campuses can start to centralize services like labs or pharmacies, rather than duplicating the same services in multiple locations. Remote clinics can save costs by relying on more distant labs rather than maintaining their own lab onsite. Those that currently use couriers, like WakeMed, can avoid delays in traffic.
The drones can help by “extending the capabilities of smaller facilities within the healthcare network by potentially expanding what is ‘on the menu’ in terms of testing capabilities at facilities that would otherwise not support onsite laboratory services,” says Ginn. “A larger goal for healthcare service-delivery design going forward is to shape the services we provide around our patients’ needs, pushing services into the community so that we can care for our patients when and where they need it. This is a technology that could make that economically and logistically feasible in ways that have so far eluded healthcare systems.”
In Raleigh, WakeMed staff now load drone containers with medical samples at a facility and hand that to a drone pilot from Matternet, who loads the drone. The drone, which can carry up to five pounds, flies along a predetermined flight path to a landing pad at the main hospital where the main pathology lab is located. The first route now runs from the healthcare system’s surgery center to the lab, and other routes will be added over time; while the first route is short, at about one-third of a mile, it still takes around half an hour with a courier, versus three minutes with the drone. (The other routes that the drone will fly in the future will be several miles long.)
The delivery service is part of the FAA’s Unmanned Aircraft System Integration Pilot Program, a program that works with companies and local governments–in this case, the North Carolina Department of Transportation–to study how drone technology can be used and safely integrated. As the WakeMed service operates, the partners will be demonstrating how the drones can fly safely over a city and stay separated from other air traffic such as helicopters. Matternet, which has proven the economic viability of the service in Switzerland, will also work with UPS to validate the business case for U.S. hospitals and clinics to use the service. UPS, which already works on logistics with healthcare organizations, previously partnered with another drone startup that makes medical deliveries in Rwanda.
While others are still working on drones to deliver packages or pizza, Matternet saw medical delivery as a way to best showcase the potential of the technology. “We feel very strongly that there’s so much inefficiency in how medical systems are run when it comes to logistics,” says Raptopoulos. “Now there’s tremendous benefit we can bring.”