UPS uses drone for the first time to deliver prescription medicine from an NC CVS

UPS says it has teamed up with CVS to make the country’s first home deliveries of prescription medications via drone from a store in Cary.

Two drone deliveries — one to a home and another to a retirement community — were completed Friday without advance publicity. The companies announced the flights on Tuesday.

In March, UPS began using drones to deliver blood and other lab samples from medical offices on Sunnybrook Road to a lab at WakeMed’s main hospital on New Bern Avenue, marking the first regular commercial drone deliveries in the country.

The company says it has completed more than 1,500 of those flights, which cross Sunnybrook Road and a few buildings before landing on the ground near the hospital’s front entrance.

The home deliveries took off from the CVS at the corner of High House Road and Davis Drive. Rather than land at its destinations, the battery-powered M2 quadcopter, made by Matternet of California, hovered about 20 feet in the air and lowered a box containing the medicine to the ground with a winch and cable.

The companies say the drones flew autonomously but were monitored by an operator who could intervene if necessary.

Bala Ganesh, vice president of UPS’s Advance Technology Group, said the flights marked the first time a drone has delivered prescription drugs to someone’s home.

“This could be a life-changing event, especially for elderly or sick people who cannot leave their home to go pick up a prescription from a store,” Ganesh said in a video released by the company. “This is going to change the way care is provided to these patients as we move forward.”

Permission to fly

UPS Flight Forward, a subsidiary of the delivery company known for its boxy brown trucks, received an airline certificate from the Federal Aviation Administration in September, which will allow it to operate a commercial fleet of drones. A month later, CVS announced that it had become the first retail health care company to work with UPS to explore the use of drones for deliveries.

“We see big potential in drone delivery in rural communities where life-saving medications are needed and consumers at times cannot conveniently access one of our stores,” CVS president Kevin Hourican said in a statement Tuesday.

FAA rules still bar drone flights beyond the sight of the operator, but the agency has allowed exceptions as part of a test program to show how drones, or unmanned aircraft systems, might be regulated in the future.

The FAA approved only the first two deliveries in Cary. A spokesman said UPS is working on additional test flights and will expand the program when it gets additional FAA approval.

The deliveries in Cary and at WakeMed were authorized under the FAA’s test program, which involves the N.C. Department of Transportation and other companies. Another company, Israeli-based Flytrex, hopes to begin testing the use of drones to deliver food in Holly Springs in the coming months.

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Richard Stradling covers transportation for The News & Observer. Planes, trains and automobiles, plus ferries, bicycles, scooters and just plain walking. Also, #census2020. He’s been a reporter or editor for 32 years, including the last 20 at The N&O. 919-829-4739, rstradling@newsobserver.com.