UPS delivers COVID-19 vaccines via temperature-controlled drone

Dive Brief:

  • UPS Flight Forward, the logistics company’s drone subsidiary, plans to complete the first drone delivery of COVID-19 vaccines on Wednesday at Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, the company announced in a press release Tuesday.
  • The delivery is leaving from the hospital and going to one of the health system’s family medicine practices, according to UPS. It’s about half a mile from the hospital, and the drones are supplementing ground delivery. The drone can carry 25 vials each, for a total of 450 doses, Dan Gagnon, VP of UPS Healthcare, said in an email.
  • This is the first such delivery in the U.S. but follows similar efforts in Africa. “The humanitarian relief initiative in Africa has already delivered over 45,000 does of the vaccine by drone,” Gagnon said.

Dive Insight:

The delivery of the COVID-19 vaccines is a notoriously fickle process. The vaccines need to be kept within a precise temperature range. If they fluctuate too far from the range, the whole batch could be a loss.

UPS said its Matternet M2 drone used for the delivery has been outfitted with special packaging that will help it to maintain temperatures of 2 to 8 degrees Celsius. And a temperature monitor aboard the drone will notify the users if there are any temperature diversions, according to UPS. When shipments have left the appropriate temperature range in the past it has required a replacement shipment to be sent.

Delivering the vaccines by drone “provides us with additional rapid delivery options for these time- and temperature-sensitive vaccines,” Conrad Emmerich, senior vice president of supply chain at Atrium Health, said in a statement.

“Now that the ability to carry temperature monitors has been unlocked, UPS Flight Forward is working with [Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist] and others to evaluate additional applications,” Gagnon said.

Healthcare was one of the first industries to take up drone deliveries in recent years. The Federal Aviation Administration’s drone pilot program that began in 2017 included efforts around healthcare deliveries. And UPS has been focusing on healthcare as a potential use for drones since the early days of its Flight Forward business, which it launched in 2019.

UPS has been working with hospitals in North Carolina, including the WakeMed hospital system in Raleigh.

“They were really interested in really understanding how this new technology could improve patient healthcare outcomes, and how they could deliver better care today,” Bala Ganesh, then-vice president of the advanced technology group at UPS, said in a 2019 interview about the company’s work with WakeMed.

The use of drones for healthcare deliveries in rural areas could be a marked improvement over current delivery models, according to recent research. In Africa, drones aid deliveries to rural areas, which can be “hard to reach during health emergencies due to poor road infrastructure,” reads a paper published this year by Wageningen University & Research and the Youth Harvest Foundation.

And other research has shown a specific benefit when it comes to vaccines.

“They found that using drones resulted in a logistics cost savings of up to $0.21 per dose when compared to traditional delivery,” reads a 2019 article in Transfusion by researchers at Johns Hopkins and Inova Fairfax Hospital. “These results show that drones could increase vaccine availability and decrease costs over a wide range of settings provided the drones are used frequently enough to overcome the initial capital costs of installing and maintaining the system.”

UPS did not specify how much faster the drone delivery would be compared to ground transport at Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist, but the Transfusion article notes that drone use by a healthcare system to deliver prescriptions in Southwest Virginia cut delivery times from 90 minutes by car to 3 minutes.

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