Matternet quadcopter

UPS will make drone-based ‘revenue flights’ delivering medical samples in Raleigh, NC

While operating under an FAA pilot program, UPS will gear up for commercial deliveries


Using drones to make deliveries of pharmaceuticals and related healthcare products has been demo’ed in Africa, Europe and the US—and the service in Rwanda, with an operator known as Zipline, has been running for a couple years now. However, UPS is now embarking on a program that it expects to eventually become a routine service offering of UPS Healthcare Logistics. The service combines UPS’ logistics management with drones provided by Matternet, a Menlo Park, CA, drone developer, and the client, WakeMed Health & Hospitals, a multi-site provider centered on Raleigh, NC. The program is operating under the three-year Unmanned Aircraft System Integration Pilot Program (IPP) of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA); the North Carolina Dept. of Transportation is also involved in the project.

As planned, the Matternet M2 quadcopter, which can carry payloads up to 5 lb as far as 12.5 miles, will fly along a predetermined path from a variety of WakeMed locations to WakeMed’s main hospital and central pathology lab. Medical samples are the initial payload. UPS will manage the process under its Global Smart Logistics Network initiative, which brings logistics services together with connected devices and sensors. The planned flights, with the quadcopter flying at upwards of 40 mph, will cut a 30-minute van-based delivery to just over 3 minutes.

Chris Cassidy, who is approaching his first-year anniversary as VP, global healthcare and life sciences strategy at UPS, says that “The attraction of working with Matternet, besides their drone technology, is the quality and security of their delivery service.” Matternet has developed a “pod station” where deliveries are automatically logged in and secured. “We really like the security, quality assurance and predictability of the Matternet system,” he says.

Matternet has been running a similar setup in three cities in Switzerland for over a year, and has made upwards of 3,000 successful deliveries of medical samples to hospitals there. For its part, UPS’ charitable foundation (along with some logistics expertise) has been a sponsor of the Zipline project in Rwanda, which is about to expand to Ghana. (In contrast to Zipline, which operates within a 50-mile radius, Matternet’s setup is geared for “dense city environments,” and has a 12-mile radius, notes Cassidy.) n 80-km [At some of its warehouses around the world, UPS has been using drones as a method of tracking inventory in its warehouse stacks.