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U of U launching of Utah’s first drone delivery program

Posted at 9:13 PM, Oct 23, 2019
and last updated 2019-10-24 00:50:22-04

SALT LAKE CITY —The use of drones to transport medical supplies are in the works at the University of Utah Medical Center.

UPS announced this week, the expansion of its drone delivery service with the help of Matternet drones.

“We’re working with UDOT to create what they’re calling ‘skyways’,” said IT Project Manager Amanda Weaver. “There’s a lot to be done and there’s a lot of regulations that I think get forgotten. One of those things is we have very strict standards to abide by, even with a landing zone, so where that drone is going to land.”

The project team has three solid landing sites right now. The idea of the project is to ultimately transport medical items that are currently being transported by courier cars.

"This is a great way to take cars off the road to remove the carbon footprint of those cars, the cost of those cars, the time it takes for a driver to be driving in many cases these are lab technicians or healthcare providers that are driving cars instead of where they prefer to be in the lab performing clinical work," said Project Owner Brent Elieson. "Drone transportation for both cargo as well as human transport is going to occur in a not so distant here so being on the forefront of that is a great opportunity for all of us here."

“University of Utah Health’s drone delivery program will provide many benefits including patient convenience, reduced delivery times, and support for the Utah Clean Air partnership by reducing vehicle traffic," said University of Utah Hospital's and Clinics CEO Gordon Crabtree. "It’s extremely exciting that we are on track to launch Utah’s first functioning drone delivery program. Not only are we committed to providing innovative and quality care to our patients, but we are committed to improving Utah’s air quality by being on the forefront of this new technological frontier."

UPS first launched the service at WakeMed's Flagship Hospital in Raleigh, North Carolina. The program was announced in March and marked the first FAA-sanctioned use of a drone for routine revenue flights in the U.S. In September, UPS's drone airline subsidiary, UPS Flight Forward, received the first-ever FAA's Part 135 Standard certification awarded in the U.S. This gives UPS and Matternet flexibility to rapidly scale hospital operations. University of Utah Health Center is next.

The drones can handle a five-pound carry load. They'll be transporting a container with medical items (blood/lab samples, documents, etc) on a predetermined flight path to its delivery point. According to members of the drone project team, the drones will not include cameras.

"We are going to do several proof of concept flights, during that time people will see drones in the sky," said Weaver. "They may be empty, they may have vials in them that are not full of any substance but patients or staff or anyone on campus will see drones flying to start gathering that data needed."

There are no definitive dates on when testing will begin and no projected public date on when the flights will be rolled out.

"The hospital system is really interested in affecting patient's lives and doing stuff not incrementally differently but dramatically differently," said Vice President of UPS's Global Healthcare Logistics and Life Sciences Daniel Gagnon. "This is a scalable solution that has value for the medical community."

The University of Utah project staff has already worked with the FAA and determined that flight paths wouldn't be compromised. Given the helicopter flight traffic at the medical center, those questions have been taken into account.

"The radar system that we'll work with, Fortem, is the local company we'll be utilizing for that," said Weaver. "They help us to navigate and tell us what's in the sky already and will actually help to redirect the drone so they don't ever come in close contact, but ultimately AirMed, LifeFlight, they take priority."

Matternet, who owns the drones, also have the pilots who will initially fly them. Once the routes become more familiar and training is complete, there is a good chance the medical supplies could be flown with an automated system.

“Matternet is thrilled to be expanding its on-demand drone delivery hospital operations in the U.S. in partnership with UPS," said Matternet CEO Andreas Raptopoulos in a statement to Fox13 News. "We are transforming the way traditional healthcare logistics work by creating a new mode of transportation to deliver urgent items that has immense benefits to hospitals and the cities that surround them. University of Utah Health believes in our mission to transform medical logistics and improve patient care, and we are excited to work with the organization to realize the value of medical drone delivery.”