Drones delivering vaccines from Merck facility to Vidant Health

Vidant Health Tuesday said it’s part of a new pilot program to deliver vaccines directly from a manufacturer to one of its facilities via drone.

The pilot, launched with drone delivery company Volansi, delivers vaccines for such disease as the measles, mumps and rubella—or MMR—from a Merck & Co. manufacturing facility in rural Wilson, N.C., to a Vidant Health clinic in the same city. The program uses drones from Volansi that can carry 10 pounds of cargo for up to 50 miles.

Healthcare organizations and logistics companies in recent years have been testing whether drones can deliver medical supplies more quickly and efficiently, since drones can fly along a fixed path, unencumbered by traffic and other roadway delays. Drones have previously been used in healthcare to deliver lab samples and personal protective equipment.

The first flights from Merck’s facility to Vidant Health’s clinic in late September represent the first drone delivery of temperature-controlled medicines within the U.S., according to Volansi.

It’s also the first time Vidant Health has piloted a drone delivery program, although executives at the not-for-profit health system have been looking into ways that drones could possibly make its supply chain more efficient for a while, said Jacob Parrish, vice president of systems and procedures at Vidant Health.

“We’ve been evaluating use cases for several years,” Parrish said. “We’ve had a need, but the drone technology hasn’t quite been there yet.”

Typically, a Vidant Health clinic would order vaccines in bulk and store them at the facility. Drone delivery down the line could open up the possibility of “on demand, real-time” ordering based on patients, said Dan Drake, president of Vidant Medical Group and ambulatory services.

In terms of distance, it’s just a few miles from the Merck manufacturing facility to the Vidant Health clinic in Wilson, so the drone flight totals less than five minutes. That short distance makes it easier to closely monitor drone deliveries during the pilot.

Craig Kennedy, Merck’s senior vice president of global supply chain management, in a statement said the drone pilot “helps us explore new innovative delivery options that would complement our existing supply chain capabilities.”

“Merck is very supportive of collaborations using new technologies to explore how one day we could help better serve the healthcare community,” he said.

The project is part of the Federal Aviation Administration’s Unmanned Aircraft System Integration Pilot Program, according to Volansi.

The project marks the first phase of a three-part project Volansi is rolling out to better understand how to integrate drones into the healthcare supply chain, according to company officials. Volansi at deadline did not return a request for comment on what the next two phases of the project will entail.