The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on Tuesday announced that it will allow United Parcel Service (UPS) to expand its drone medical supply delivery project in North Carolina.
In March, WakeMed Health & Hospitals in North Carolina, UPS, and the drone company Matternet, teamed up to test whether drones could help providers speed up the process of transporting lab samples to and from medical facilities. For the pilot program, FAA authorized WakeMed Health & Hospitals to use commercial drones to transport lab samples from WakeMed's medical park to the hospital's main building for lab testing.
The pilot drone, Matternet's M2 "quadcopter" drone, is equipped with a secure box that contains the vials of blood or other lab specimens. The drone can carry medical samples of up to five pounds as far as 12.5 miles.
In July, UPS created the subsidiary, called Flight Forward, and sought FAA approval to operate drones to ship medical specimens.
UPS receives FAA approval to expand operation
On Tuesday, federal authorities authorized Flight Forward as an "air carrier," which will allow UPS to expand the work it's currently doing delivering blood and medical samples, the Washington Post reports. According to the Wall Street Journal, the approval is effective immediately.
UPS said the approval is a major step to enhance services for health care customers and other industries, and that the approval "has no limits on the size or scope of operations." UPS said it plans to gradually begin routine night flights and heavier cargo limits.
David Abney, UPS chair and CEO, said the approval "gives us a lot of capabilities." He continued, "We're going to move quickly and expand rapidly. It's not going to be a small operation."
Abney said the first phase of the program within months could include 100 or more hospital complexes. He added that UPS is also planning on investing in ground-based technologies to better track its drones and to partner with manufacturers to create new drone models.
Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao in a release called the development "a big step forward in safely integrating unmanned aircraft systems into our airspace" and "expanding access to health care in North Carolina."
Ryan Citron, a transportation analyst at Navigant, said UPS' performance with its project will help determine how quickly consumer deliveries via drone will be approved.
"If everything works well, it gives them legitimacy to move into the residential space more quickly," he said, "but if there are some major crashes or incidents it could slow down the approval process. It's going to be an important test bed" (Duncan, Washington Post, 10/1; Pasztor, Wall Street Journal, 10/1; Koenig, Associated Press, 10/1; FAA release, 10/2).