It feels like drones were built for this moment. The coronavirus pandemic has forced everyone to spend the majority of their time indoors and, where possible, maintain a healthy distance from anyone that doesn’t live in the same building. Companies have introduced numerous measures to minimize the threat and spread of infection. Countless stores have acrylic screens, for instance, and many delivery drivers leave orders at your doorstep. But a robot — or specifically, a drone — offers a potentially safer and quicker method of exchanging goods and services.
It’s no wonder, then, that so many commercial UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) operators are flourishing at the moment. In a time of crisis, they’re keen to step forward and showcase the impact that drone deliveries can have on society.
Take Matternet. Last month, logistics powerhouse UPS announced that its Flight Forward subsidiary — which uses Matternet's M2 drone system — would support a retirement community in Florida by ferrying medicine from a nearby CVS pharmacy. It’s a short route and, for the initial flights at least, it requires a human concierge to take the delivery to the customer's door. Still, it's a welcome service for people that many would consider high risk and might not be able to leave their home every day.
The delivery area, known as The Villages, houses one of the largest retirement communities in the country. “They basically have a city,” Andreas Raptopoulos, founder and CEO of Matternet told Engadget. That means the company can have a large impact with a single pick-up and drop-off point. Raptopoulos hopes the program will expand to three pharmacies and, perhaps more critically, support multiple routes from each one. Unsurprisingly, he also wants to reach a point where the drones can hover and lower the package at the resident’s doorstep.
“You can really make a difference if you don’t send a human in a van into a location that has a vulnerable population,” Raptopoulos said.
Matternet is starting with 10 to 20 deliveries each day. But if everything goes to plan, the company could facilitate “thousands of deliveries” each month, according to Raptopoulos. “If we can prove the model with one [store] and we see value there, and the economics are working out, then it can be rolled out to multiple [locations],” he added.
The little-known company has been building up to this moment. In March 2017, Swiss Post and Matternet started transporting lab samples between two hospitals in Switzerland. Six months later, the drone maker partnered with Mercedes-Benz on a “technology development program,” which has since wound down. Matternet now supports hospitals in Lugano and Zurich, though both sites were put on pause once the coronavirus outbreak hit. Raptopoulos is confident, however, that services will restart “in the next few weeks.”
The drone supplier is working with medical personnel in the US, too. In August 2018, the company performed some test flights at a WakeMed facility with North Carolina's Department of Transportation (NCDOT). Seven months later, Matternet partnered with UPS for the first time and announced a permanent delivery program at the hospital. The pair have since used the M2 drone to transport more than 3,000 medical samples and specimens.
“Our target is to get to multiple hospitals this year.”
Flights were reduced at the start of the pandemic as hospitals postponed and scaled back procedures that weren't related to COVID-19. But the company’s service has "continued every day uninterrupted," according to Raptopoulos, and started ramping up again as doctors, nurses and technicians acclimate to our strange new reality. “Our target is to get to multiple hospitals this year with that type of transportation system in place,” he explained.
Matternet’s contributions could go even further. NCDOT revealed last month that the company, alongside UPS and an unnamed hospital in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, had proposed a drone program that would deliver medicine, PPE and other types of healthcare equipment during the coronavirus pandemic. Matternet has also spoken with laboratories to see if its drones could help deliver COVID-19 test samples. "The thing that we're hoping to do next, in [addition] to what we're doing with UPS, is see some of that work come out," Raptopoulos told Engadget.