UPS works to fight the spread of COVID-19 using drones

24 April 2020
One of the drones used in the tests by UPS and DroneUp and Workhorse Group to determine if the technology can be used to fight COVID-19. Source: UPS

Drone delivery might be of vital importance in fighting future pandemics, but parcel giant UPS and drone startups DroneUp and Workhorse Group are working to use drones to fight the current pandemic of COVID-19.

The tests are designed to determine how unmanned aerial systems can assist medical professionals in order to accelerate the pace of testing and for the treatment of infected patients. The tests are taking place in Virginia using commercial drones for the delivery of medical products that could prove faster than conventional ground-based transportation.

In addition to speeding up how medical products are delivered, drones offer a low-touch option for delivery of lab specimens, which is helpful when an urgent response is needed. Data collected during the tests will determine how private-sector drone operators can supplement emergency response and certain patient care.

After the tests are completed, the findings and recommendations will be included in a report to the White House, where leaders are considering the role drones could play in the coronavirus response.

“Many in the public — along with federal, state and local officials — are asking how drones can be used in this time of crisis,” said Tom Walker, CEO of DroneUp, in a statement. “Rather than speculate, it is incumbent upon our industry to conduct operationally based exercises that produce factual data and lessons learned to ensure we can respond safely, effectively and efficiently when called upon. Data collected now will impact our capabilities beyond the COVID-19 outbreak we are currently facing.”

The tests took place over three days in April on the vacant campus of St. Paul’s College in Lawrenceville, Virginia, where the test package deliveries by drones were conducted under a variety of conditions.

The tests aimed to determine:

  • Safe operational capacities based on existing technologies.
  • Airspace de-confliction and operator safety policies necessary for peak optimal capacity.
  • Processes, policies and training needed for efficient, safe and effective delivery operations both day and night.
  • Policy changes that would help enable the use of autonomous airborne advanced technologies.

Last year, UPS worked with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on an approval for a license to test drones beyond the visual line of sight (BVLOS) and the company successfully completed its first deliveries in November by delivering a medical prescription to a consumer’s home.

The two successful drone flights signal the next step in an ongoing delivery program. More deliveries are set to occur in the coming months to test the viability of the technology as an alternative to drug pickups and traditional package delivery.

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