The North Carolina Department of Transportation’s Division of Aviation has teamed up with WakeMed Health & Hospitals and Matternet to conduct the first round of test flights for drones to carry simulated medical packages from Raleigh Medical Park, located across from WakeMed Raleigh Campus on Sunnybrook Road, to a main tower at the hospital.
The drone test flights are part of the Federal Aviation Administration’s Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS, or ‘drone’) Integration Pilot Program. The three-year program aims to test practical applications of drones by partnering local governments with private sector companies to learn more about how this emerging technology can be safely and usefully integrated into day-to-day activities.
“This ‘First Flight’ is a major step forward in the worlds of healthcare and unmanned technology,” said Basil Yap, head of NCDOT’s UAS Program. “We’re crossing a new frontier that will bring increased efficiency and lower costs to healthcare providers, and ultimately help save patients’ lives.”
The first round of flights is taking place starting today through Friday at WakeMed Raleigh Campus, the health system’s flagship hospital on New Bern Avenue in Southeast Raleigh. WakeMed is the leading provider of health services in Wake County and home to the area’s only Level I Trauma Center.
“This powerful technology has the potential to achieve transformative improvements in health and healthcare delivery,” said Stuart Ginn, MD, WakeMed ENT physician and medical director of WakeMed Innovations. “As a Level I Trauma Center, WakeMed is committed to providing life-saving treatment when time matters the most. Developing healthcare-related uses for drones will improve speed of deliveries, enhance access to care and create healthier communities.”
The partnership involves delivering blood samples and other medical items across WakeMed’s network of healthcare facilities. Matternet, a leader in drone technology, has completed more than 1,800 successful flights for healthcare systems in Switzerland.
“This represents a major milestone for unmanned aviation in the U.S.,” said Andreas Raptopoulos, founder and CEO of Matternet. “We’re thrilled to be working with WakeMed and the NCDOT to launch the first medical drone delivery operations over densely populated areas in the U.S.”
To help ensure safe operations, AirMap is providing UAS Traffic Management (UTM) services for the flights. The AirMap UTM platform helps drone pilots stay aware of aircraft, weather conditions, airspace restrictions and other possible conflicts to ensure safe and efficient flights.
“Today’s initial operations demonstrate a very important commercial use case for drones with lifesaving potential,” said Ben Marcus, AirMap co-founder and chairman. “We look forward to working closely with NCDOT and the Federal Aviation Administration to operationalize and scale these drone missions to extend the benefits of drones to the general public.”
Following the initial flights, NCDOT will host a public meeting on Thursday, where people can come and learn more about the program, as well as ask questions or submit comments to NCDOT, WakeMed, Matternet and other partners. The public meeting will be held from 4-7 p.m. Thursday at the Wake Tech Community College Perry Health Sciences Campus, 2901 Holston Lane, Raleigh. For more on the meeting, see the public meeting’s web page.