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UC San Diego Health launches drone transport program with UPS, Matternet

Drone service slated to begin February 2020, with goals of enhancing efficacy, reliability and predictability of delivering medical products between hospitals and laboratories.

In February, University of California (UC) San Diego Health will launch a pilot project to test the use of unmanned aerial vehicles to transport medical samples, supplies and documents between Jacobs Medical Center, Moores Cancer Center and the Center for Advanced Laboratory Medicine (CALM), speeding delivery of services and patient care currently managed through ground transport.

Trained professionals will load and operate the drones, which will follow predetermined, low-risk flight paths and will carry no cameras. (Photo: UC San Diego Health)

Trained professionals will load and operate the drones, which will follow predetermined, low-risk flight paths and will carry no cameras. (Photo: UC San Diego Health)

The program is a collaboration with UPS, which received in September 2019 the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Part 135 Standard certification and authorization to use unmanned aircraft systems for a drone delivery program, and Matternet, a Mountain View, California-based drone systems developer for health care institutions. This latest effort builds upon the UPS and Matternet drone project already taking place at WakeMed Health and Hospitals, a private, non-profit health care system based in Raleigh, N.C.

“Currently, medical samples that must be transported between health care sites are carried by courier cars, which are naturally subject to the variabilities of traffic and other ground issues,” said Matthew Jenusaitis, chief administrative officer for innovation and transformation at UC San Diego Health. “With drones, we want to demonstrate proof-of-concept for getting vital samples where they need to be for testing or assessment more quickly and simply. It’s another way to leverage emerging technologies in a way that can tangibly benefit our patients.”

The project calls for medical professionals at Jacobs Medical Center, located on the east health campus of UC San Diego in La Jolla, to pack payloads, such as blood samples or documents, into a secure container that attaches to one of Matternet’s M2 rechargeable battery-powered drones.

The drones will follow predetermined, low-risk flight paths, initially between Jacobs Medical Center and special landing sites at Moores Cancer Center, located less than a mile away and within visual line of sight under the FAA’s Part 107 rules, and then subsequently at CALM, which is near the Jacobs Medical Center. The flights will take only minutes to complete and will be monitored by remote operators. The drones will carry no cameras.

In May 2018, the FAA designated the city of San Diego as one of nine lead participants in the regulators’ Integration Pilot Program. UC San Diego was also approved by the FAA to test the use of drones in transporting lab specimens and pharmaceuticals throughout its health system.

“Right now, most biological samples must travel between sites by courier car, within designated hours,” said James Killeen, MD, clinical professor of emergency medicine and director of information technology services at UC San Diego School of Medicine. “That leaves the system vulnerable to the vagaries of road congestion, accidents, construction and more. Travel time can be slow and unpredictable. A drone can fly over such obstacles in a much more direct way, and take just a few minutes to cover the same distance.”

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