Drones have been a part of military operations for decades as they have engaged in drone warfare and performed reconnaissance and surveillance missions. Civilian drones are popular with drone enthusiasts of all ages. Whether it is to take a hobby such as aerial photography or drone golf to the next level, keep the kids entertained, or to simply enjoy flying these unmanned winged vehicles, drones continue to trend on the hottest gift lists.
Zero emission unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are already being utilized across a number of industries including reshaping search and rescue operations. Scores of emergency services including volunteer rescue teams, police officers, and firefighters deploy drones to save lives in natural disasters and to ensure public safety. Commercial drones are now going airborne and transforming healthcare services delivery, including the delivery of prescription medications.
On November 1, 2019, the United Parcel Service (UPS) drone delivery division, UPS Flight Forward (UPSFF), and CVS Pharmacy made the first commercial residential drone deliveries of prescription drugs in the United States (US). For the maiden flight, pharmacists loaded the drones with prescription medications at a CVS drugstore in Cary, NC. The Matternet M2 drones flew to nearby residences and slowly lowered the small packages to the ground from a hover height of about 20 feet over the properties. A remote drone operator was on standby to step in, if needed. One of the revenue-generating deliveries was made to a front lawn of a private home while the other to the public space at a nearby retirement home. Per UPS, one of the packages was delivered to a CVS customer with limited mobility, for whom traditional store pick up was a challenge. UPS drone deliveries are expected to fly on pre-planned routes, carry packages up to 5 pounds, and deliver in 5 to 10 minutes. Prior to these deliveries, UPS had deployed Matternet quadcopter drones in the hospital setting at the WakeMed Raleigh, NC hospital campuses for commercial transport of medical supplies. As of early November 2019, this business-to-business model had yielded over 1,500 revenue-generating deliveries at WakeMed, since launching in March 2019. UPS is already partnering with the drone logistics startup Matternet on its next iteration of delivery services to medical campuses.
What is remarkable about the UPS/CVS autonomous delivery in Cary, NC is that it was for prescription medications flown directly to a patient’s home. Wing, a drone delivery service owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet, has partnered with FedEx and Walgreens Pharmacy for a home delivery pilot for health and wellness products in the Christiansburg, VA community. In partnership with local merchants, Wing already has drone deliveries of goods available in select areas of Australia and Finland. In June 2019, Amazon’s drone operator system, Prime Air, announced its plans to launch a drone delivery service in the “coming months.” Amazon’s UAVs are expected to fly up to 15 miles and deliver packages under 5 pounds. According to Amazon, 75% to 90% of purchased items weigh less than 5 pounds. These drones will employ “sense and avoid” technology fueled with computer vision, machine learning algorithms, and artificial intelligence to navigate around obstacles such as trees, birds, power lines, people, and pets. Zipline, a CA drone startup, has been actively delivering lifesaving medical supplies including blood and vaccines in Rwanda and Ghana. Notably, Rwanda will be home to the world’s first “droneport” – an airport for drones.
“Drone-to-Door” delivery of prescription medications is a pharmacy quantum leap. This innovation opens the door to swiftly delivering medications at the point of need and can benefit an array of people. Immobility can be a barrier to getting medications for patients with disabilities or those who have sustained injuries because it can be difficult for these patients to get to the pharmacy. Likewise, it can be challenging for the elderly or parents with a sick child at home to make it to the pharmacy, and people who work or travel may not be able to conveniently access a pharmacy. Patients in assisted living facilities also benefit from drone delivery of life-saving medications directly to the site of need. With a number of independent pharmacies and smaller hospitals closing their doors, consumers in rural communities are left without access to vital prescription medications and medical supplies. Drones can rise to fill part of this void. CVS Pharmacy is exploring these options in rural, as well as suburban and urban, markets. Moreover, medication delivery by sustainable UAVs saves time and provides consumers with convenience.
While questions about safety, privacy, intrusiveness, theft, medication exposure, noise, and light pollution remain, there are still significant regulatory hurdles to overcome before drone delivery becomes commonplace. Drones require aviation regulation similar to commercial airplanes. In September 2019, UPS became the first company to receive full Part 135 Standard Certification by the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) granting UPS its highest certification. This allows the carriers to fly at night and out of operator’s line of sight, to fly as many drones supported by as many operators as needed to meet customer demand, and to collect payment for drone deliveries. In April 2019, Wing received a similar but more restrictive certificate limiting it to a single pilot allowing it to only complete one flight at a time. The FAA guidelines to inform how UAVs will operate in US airspace are anticipated in 2021.
The ascent of “The Airborne Pharmacy” is an inflection point in the delivery of medications to consumers and provides an aerial glimpse of its mainstream future. When imagining that future, the sky’s the limit for real-world, everyday life applications of drone-centric technology. What originated as a part of military infrastructure can now change how life-saving medications reach patients at home or in the inpatient and outpatient settings. “Drone-to-Door” not only has the potential to reshape how medications are delivered but also to transform the consumer experience by providing convenience in an on-demand healthcare economy.