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Getting medical specimens, critical drugs, and blood samples to and from hospitals and labs can be a logistical nightmare. Although the items are often relatively lightweight and small, they are delicate, require rapid transport, and might create infectious disease risks. These features all informed UPS’s decision to advance its drone delivery services expressly for the hospital and medical industries. If a sample is being carried by a drone, it can get to the lab faster, without worrying about running into traffic on roads, and with less chance of human contamination.

Through a subsidiary it called Flight Forward, UPS already has confirmed the drones’ capacity and effectiveness in a pilot test with a hospital in Raleigh, N.C. The experiment cut delivery times to an average of 3 minutes, whereas on-road delivery services took an average of 19 minutes. Efficiency gains are critical in this industry; if blood testing results can come back faster, or an organ transplant can get to a patient with less time, it offers vast promise for saving people’s lives.

Moving beyond the hospital setting, UPS also plans to work with CVS to develop options for delivering prescription medications to consumers at their homes. This option may prove more difficult to organize. Whereas hospitals often have dedicated areas to receive critical deliveries (e.g., helicopter pads), as well as constant staffing of personnel who can take delivery, consumers’ homes vary widely, which may make safe delivery more difficult. It also will require considerations of how to prevent fraud and misuses of prescription drugs. However, if UPS can address those challenges, the benefits again are clear. Patients whose health conditions make it difficult for them to get to a pharmacy would enjoy improved health and quality of life if they could receive their needed medications efficiently and at their door.

Discussion Questions

  1. Can you think of any other promising health-related applications of drone deliveries?
  2. What are some options UPS might use to ensure accurate deliveries, of the right drugs to the right patients, as it develops its consumer delivery capabilities?

Source: Jennifer Smith, “UPS Strikes Agreement to Use Drones to Deliver Medical Supplies,” The Wall Street Journal, October 21, 2019; Lisa Baertlein, “Drugstore Drones: UPS Will Fly CVS Prescriptions to U.S. Consumers,” Reuters, October 21, 2019