Drone technology and the healthcare supply chain
The healthcare supply chain moves with a sense of urgency. Unfortunately, sometimes shipments are at the mercy of ground transportation delays.
But what if there was a way to make critical deliveries without the worries of traffic jams or a shortage of vehicles? What if hospitals and health systems could ship and receive lab samples at a quicker pace, thus receiving faster results? What if sensitive cancer treatment supplies could be delivered without the worry of delay?
The technology already exists. Supply chain leaders need only look to the sky.
In March of 2019, UPS announced a groundbreaking new logistics service to deliver medical samples via unmanned drones through a collaboration with Matternet, a leader in autonomous drone technology. The program is taking place at WakeMed’s flagship hospital and campus in the Raleigh, N.C., metropolitan area, with oversight by the Federal Aviation Administration and North Carolina Department of Transportation.
The program will utilize Matternet’s M2 quadcopter, which is powered by a rechargeable lithium-ion battery, and can carry medical payloads weighing up to 4.4 pounds over distances of up to 12 miles.
Throughout the drone delivery program, a medical professional will pack and secure a drone payload container with a medical sample or specimen – such as a blood sample – at one of WakeMed’s nearby facilities. The medical professional hands the payload container to a UPS Flight Forward operator who weighs the box and carries it to a specially designated takeoff and landing location outside the facility. The drone will autonomously fly along a predetermined flight path, monitored by a specially trained Remote Pilot-in-Command (RPIC), to a fixed landing pad at WakeMed’s main hospital and central pathology lab. This will be an ongoing program at WakeMed, and UPS and Matternet will use the learnings to consider how drones can be applied to improve transport services at other hospitals and medical facilities across the U.S.
The Journal of Healthcare Contracting asked Kevin Wasik, head of business development, UPS Flight Forward, for insights into drone technology, its uses, and how it is entering the healthcare field.
The Journal of Healthcare Contracting: How did UPS get started in drone delivery? Why the decision to explore this technology?
Kevin Wasik: UPS has been testing and investing in drone delivery since 2016. We see tremendous potential for UAS to disrupt the same-day delivery industry. To start, we are focused on urgent medical deliveries, where faster and more reliable transport of healthcare items can improve patient care.
- Overcome ground traffic and chronic parking issues
- Access hard-to-reach locations
- Improved turnaround time for urgent lab samples
- Improve economics of final mile delivery
- Optimize workflow with smaller, more frequent deliveries
- Battery powered aircraft are energy efficient and better for the environment
- Greater predictability for time- and temperature-sensitive payloads
- Preprogrammed flight for precision takeoff and landings within tight footprints
- Flight status alerts and progress delivery maps
JHC: What is your personal interest in drone technology?
Wasik: Drone technology has been around for decades. Now, the FAA is leading a pilot program designed to integrate UAS into National Air Space. UPS Flight Forward is a fully certified drone airline working with the FAA to test and develop the right solutions to scale drone delivery services.
My focus is on solving problems for the healthcare community with present day capabilities. It’s very common for hospital networks to physically connect a web of decentralized facilities with same-day ground couriers. Couriers run daily bus routes to pick up and drop off from the same locations, multiple times per day.
Ground vehicles are regularly hampered by ground traffic and limited by total number of vehicles.
Drones are different. They are available on-demand – virtually anywhere – and can be used to increase the speed of delivery. This is really important within the healthcare industry. For example, ensuring urgent lab samples are tested sooner or personalized cancer treatments that are time- and temperature-sensitive are rapidly delivered to the patient’s point of care.
JHC: Please tell us about your work with WakeMed Hospital in Raleigh. What is UPS able to provide through UPS Flight Forward?
Wasik: UPS Flight Forward operates Monday through Friday, eight hours per day. Prior to the drone program, lab specimens were transported from WakeMed’s outpatient clinic to the hospital’s central lab via a ground courier. The courier would make eight scheduled trips per day and occasionally return for an unplanned STAT delivery.
Today, WakeMed hospital is using a drone to increase the frequency and speed of specimen transport. The lab is receiving more specimens in smaller batches throughout the day – increasing the efficiency of lab. Doctors have an opportunity to diagnose patients sooner. And, since the program started in March, 2019 – WakeMed has yet to call on a ground courier for a STAT delivery.
JHC: Why is this needed in healthcare today?
Wasik: Physical access to healthcare is a real problem within the United States. “Rural America” makes up at least 15 to 20% of the U.S. population. This population faces inequities that result in worse healthcare than that of urban and suburban residents. Drone delivery represents a unique opportunity to physically connect rural America to healthcare providers.
JHC: What are other upcoming initiatives related to the program?
Wasik: UPS Flight Forward seeks to optimize how we operate. We are focused on delivering high-impact enhancements that will allow more complex operations. For example, longer distance flights, heavier payloads, and increasing the capacity of total deliveries per hour.
JHC: Can you talk about UPS’s COVID-19 response? How has it affected business operations? What are some unique ways in which UPS has responded?
Wasik: UPS Flight Forward teamed up with the nation’s largest pharmacy to deliver prescriptions on-demand from a pharmacy in Florida, to a nearby retirement community called The Villages, home to the largest retirement community in the United States. This drone operation helps a high-risk demographic remain healthy at home. Instead of visiting the pharmacy, patients have the option to receive their prescription in as little as 30 minutes. UPSFF is proud to run a drone operation that supports social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19.