Someday, when drones are routinely carrying lab samples and medical supplies between doctor’s offices, clinics and hospitals, people might remember what happened at WakeMed on Wednesday as an historic event.
A drone lifted off from behind a medical office building, then flew across Sunnybrook Road and a couple of other office buildings before landing on the roof of WakeMed’s main hospital. Inside a red box in the drone’s belly were vials of water, stand-ins in for blood and other medical samples that drones like this may soon carry around Wake County.
The flights mark the first time a drone has been used to deliver medical supplies over people in the United States. The drone was built by Matternet, a California company that is testing its delivery drones under a program run by the N.C. Department of Transportation and authorized by the Federal Aviation Administration.
Matternet’s showcase flight took off about 1:40 p.m., after state and WakeMed officials and Matternet’s founder and CEO Andreas Raptopoulos spoke about the history that was about to be made, including references to the Wright Brothers and their first flight in the state. Matternet has made about 2,000 drone flights between health care facilities in Switzerland, Raptopoulos said, “And it’s amazing to have a chance to now bring this system back home.”
Raptopoulos said his company would someday like to see every big medical system in the country using drones to make deliveries, shortening to minutes what now can take hours in heavy traffic. WakeMed has three hospitals and more than 70 facilities, including doctors offices, scattered around the county, said Stuart Ginn, a surgeon who helps lead the Innovations department at WakeMed.
“We noticed that we’re spending money and waiting often for labs and materials to flow around our system,” Ginn said. “It’s just the reality of being a large and growing health care system.”
The Matternet drone has four rotors and weighs about 23 pounds, including the battery pack that has enough juice to let it fly as long as 25 minutes, said Jim O’Sullivan, who is leading Matternet’s pilot program in the U.S. It can carry payloads that weigh up to 4.4 pounds, Sullivan said.
A pilot initiates each flight and can intervene at any time, O’Sullivan said, but the drone flies a pre-programmed route automatically. There are no cameras on board, either for the pilot’s benefit or to record what’s on the ground.
“We don’t record imagery,” O’Sullivan said. “We’re very cognizant of privacy concerns.”
O’Sullivan held a back-up drone as a test flight took off. Nina Szlosberg-Landis, the vice chairman of the state Board of Transportation, said it looked “sleek” and likened it to an iPhone for the air.
“It’s just such a cool thing, something so small and agile that can have such a big impact,” she said.
Szlosberg-Landis was among 100 people who climbed to the roof of a parking deck at WakeMed to watch the big flight, which covered precisely 1,377 feet. As the crowd looked on, the white drone rose about 300 feet in the air beyond a stand of pines, then approached the roof of WakeMed, where it hovered a bit before slowly descending onto a small platform. It all took about a minute.
The North Carolina drone program is one of 10 the FAA chose nationwide to try to determine how drones, or unmanned aircraft systems, can be put to commercial use in the United States. The FAA hopes to use the demonstration projects to figure out how to regulate drones in the future, said Michael O’Harra, the agency’s regional administrator for the Southeast. That means not only seeing the potential benefits of drones but also the public’s feelings about them.
“What are people willing to tolerate for those benefits?” O’Harra said.
Wednesday’s first test flights come the day before NCDOT will hold its first public meeting to present information about the drone program and solicit feedback. It will take place from 4 to 7 p.m. Thursday in the Perry Health Sciences Campus of Wake Tech Community College, 2901 Holston Lane, just off Sunnybrook Road near WakeMed.
The department expects to hold similar meetings at various milestones in the drone program, but this first one will provide an overview. NCDOT plans to hold another public meeting in Holly Springs before another company, Israeli-based Flytrex, begins testing the use of drones to deliver food in town this fall.
For more information about the drone testing program, go to www.ncdot.gov/divisions/aviation/uas-integration-pilot/.