History-making medical drone program takes off at WakeMed

WAKE COUNTY, N.C. (WTVD) -- North Carolina made history Tuesday morning pioneering a medical drone program in Wake County with UPS.

A drone landed at WakeMed's main hospital campus on New Bern Avenue in Raleigh delivering blood samples from a nearby medical building a third of a mile away.

The Raleigh flight marks the first time the Federal Aviation Administration has allowed regular commercial or revenue generating flights of drones carrying products in the United States.

"This is historic because this is the first time this has ever been done in what will eventually be a large industry where drones are used for commercial and revenue transport," explained Dr. Stuart Ginn, an ENT and Director of WakeMed Innovations.

The goal of the program is to cut down on the time it takes to transport time-sensitive samples typically driven on the ground.

WakeMed's program begins with drones flying patients medical samples like vials of blood or other specimens six times a day and five days a week from the Raleigh medical park to the main hospital where the primary lab is located.

The samples are placed in a secure box, which can hold five pounds, and attached to the aircraft which is then launched by a drone pilot. The drone flights will be within the sight of operators on both ends and the FAA has authorized the drones to fly above people.

Each drone is equipped with a parachute and other features to protect the samples in case of an emergency.

"On the first level, anything that makes our operations quicker more reliable and better visibility as to what we're moving around our system improves our patients care," Ginn added. "In this case, we're talking about shipping blood samples from our laboratories and right now that can take hours to ship from one of our outside facilities to our main lab here. We're looking to changing that to an order of minutes. That means samples will get processed quicker which means doctors will have results quicker which is a direct benefit to the patients."

UPS is providing integrated healthcare logistics for the program and the drone company Matternet is providing the drone technology.

"This is expanding the envelope of what's possible in terms of how healthcare logistics is concerned," explained Bala Ganesh, VP of the Advanced Technology Group at UPS. "It's a new mode of getting things to you as soon as you require."

North Carolina is one of nine states taking part in the FAA's pilot program to accelerate integrating drones for new uses.

The new program could expand to flying longer routes between WakeMed buildings in Raleigh in the future
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