First Vaccine Drone Delivery Program Demonstrated in Winston-Salem

The UPS Flight Forward-operated drone is prepped for flight. Photos by Kim Stevens.

Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist and its healthtech business enterprise operated through the Innovation Quarter, iQ Healthtech Labs, are taking COVID-19 vaccination efforts to new heights with drone deliveries – the first COVID-19 vaccine drone delivery program in the country.

Eric Bergesen, Director of Operations, UPS Flight Forward.

This new initiative – operated by UPS and its subsidiary, UPS Flight Forward– expands Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist’s existing drone program that was launched in July 2020. A demonstration flight was held on August 25th at the health facility in Winston-Salem.

When transporting the COVID-19 vaccines, the Matternet M2 drone is outfitted with a special cargo box that contains Cold Chain Technologies’ customized PCM Gel solution, a temperature-sensitive packaging mixture that maintains the COVID-19 vaccine at 2 to 8 degrees Celsius, and a temperature monitoring device that monitors the vaccine’s temperature while in transit. The customized cold chain packaging follows the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines on the handling, storage and transportation of the COVID-19 vaccine.

Natalie Russell, Pharm.D., takes the vaccine to the drone operator.

The UPS Flight Forward-operated drone, which flies autonomously and produces zero operational emissions, has the capability to deliver any of the COVID-19 vaccines from Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center to one of the health system’s family medicine practices located at Piedmont Plaza. 

“The ability and ingenuity to add an innovative layer to our health care supply chain by transporting COVID-19 vaccines via drone provides us with additional rapid delivery options for these time- and temperature-sensitive vaccines,” said Conrad Emmerich, senior vice president of supply chain at Atrium Health. “The iQ Healthtech Lab team is committed to partnering with industry leaders, like UPS, to better advance healthtech solutions into the marketplace.”

Members of the media track the launched drone.

Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist was one of the first health care institutions in the country to receive the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine via UPS in December of 2020. To date, Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist has provided nearly 100,000 total COVID-19 vaccinations to its employees, patients and members of the community.

“Distributing and protecting the integrity of the COVID-19 vaccine is our top priority and we’ve successfully completed multiple test flights to ensure that the vaccine remains at the appropriate temperature throughout transit,” said Jennifer Tryon, Pharm.D., chief pharmacy officer at Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist. “The ability to use a temperature monitoring device for our COVID-19 vaccine drone delivery program also opens the door for us to transport additional items which require maintenance of the cold chain.”

Conrad Emmerich, senior vice president of supply chain at Atrium Health.

Throughout the past year, Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist has already expanded its environmentally sustainable drone services program to include lab samples, in addition to the specialty infusion and individually compounded medications that have been delivered to patients since the program’s inception.

The autonomous flight is overseen by UPS Flight Forward’s specially trained operators who are stationed onsite to inspect the Matternet M2 aircraft prior to takeoff and scan the airspace for conflicting air traffic.

“The delivery of COVID-19 vaccines by drone is an exciting and important step for UPS as we continue our near-perfect vaccine service delivery throughout the U.S. and around the world,” said Dan Gagnon, vice president of UPS Healthcare. “We’re providing greater flexibility in how customers, and ultimately patients, receive temperature-controlled pharmaceuticals, which will continue to provide long-term value within the health care industry.”

Attending the August 25th flight are from left, Terry Hales, Wake Forest Baptist, Basil Yap, BEYOND Program Manager for NCDOT, Michael Baughan, Secretary, AeroX, and Kyle Mounts, AeroX Treasurer.

iQ Healthtech Labs was established in early 2020 by the Innovation Quarter to help coordinate partnerships between anchor institutions like Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist and industry leaders. The Labs focus on five key sectors of healthtech: value and health transformation, virtual health, healthy aging, personalized care and precision medicine, and learning systems.