Medical delivery by drone begins with short flight at WakeMed this week

A three-year effort to see if drones can safely be used to deliver medical supplies will begin with a short flight across Sunnybrook Road to WakeMed on Wednesday.

Matternet, a California-based company, will begin testing its delivery drones under a program run by the N.C. Department of Transportation and authorized by the Federal Aviation Administration. The North Carolina 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 Matternet drone will carry vials of water from a medical office building across Sunnybrook and two other buildings before landing on the roof of WakeMed’s flagship hospital, said James Pearce, spokesman for NCDOT’s Division of Aviation. The goal is to gradually expand the flights until drones are carrying medical samples and supplies between WakeMed facilities in different parts of the county.

“We’re going to crawl, then walk, then run,” Pearce said. “We’re starting off that crawling process this week.”

While Matternet has made medical deliveries by drone in Switzerland, this will be the first time anyone has done it over people in the United States, Pearce said. It will also be one of the first times a drone will be authorized to fly beyond the line of sight of its pilot, though in this case there will be spotters along the way to follow the drone’s short flight at WakeMed.

Also this week, NCDOT will hold its first public meeting to present information about the drone program and solicit feedback. It will take place Thursday, Aug. 30, from 4 to 7 p.m. 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, Pearce said, but this first one will provide an overview.

“Pretty soon people are going to start to see drones over head, and we want them to know what to expect,” he said.

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. Pearce said one reason for the state’s outreach is to gauge the public’s reaction to the commercial use of drones, which it will share with the FAA along with the technical lessons.

For more information about the drone testing program, go to www.ncdot.gov/divisions/aviation/uas-integration-pilot/.

Richard Stradling: 919-829-4739, @RStradling
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