Delivery drones may be key to fighting future pandemics

As social distancing becomes the norm amid the COVID-19 pandemic, delivery of goods like groceries, medicines, and other cargo has become more important than ever before. As a result, drone delivery has the potential to come into its own.

Drone delivery was on the rise even before the coronavirus outbreak, but now, those developing the technology are seeing a greater interest in what else drones can do and how they could be used to fight future pandemics.

Matternet, for example, has been operating pilot programs for drone delivery in Switzerland and the U.S. since 2017. The company’s focus has been using a partnership with UPS Flight Forward to transport tests to labs, bloodwork and other health care items from hospitals to clinic, lab to pharmacy, or vice versa.

Matternet’s most recent partnership has been with UCSD Health, but it proved the partnership could work through an earlier partnership with WakeMed in Raleigh, North Carolina.

“Health care delivery is a time-sensitive operation,” said Matternet CEO Andreas Raptopoulos. “We believe we can have tremendous impact on how health care is delivered by shortening the time that it takes to transport diagnostic tests to labs, and medicine to patients.”

Another use for drones could be delivery of prescription medicines by drone from a pharmacy to a consumer. The drone would fly autonomously to the destination, descend to an altitude of about 20 feet, and lower the package to the ground. “No driver or truck going into the community and, of course, no risk of exposure to the virus by going into the store,” Raptopoulos said.

There are other ways drones are being used to fight COVID-19, too. After the outbreak in China, drone manufacturer DJI helped to disinfect the main streets of cities through the use of modified agricultural spraying drones. This has enabled large spaces to be sterilized without the necessity of people entering infected areas. Other countries including Chile, Indonesia, the Philippines, Colombia, and Spain have also been using drones for disinfection of public areas.

Drones are also being used to detect the virus. In Australia, one university is using drones equipped with temperature sensors and computer vision to remotely monitor temperature, heart and respiratory rates, as well as detect coughing or sneezing from up to 10 meters away. Researchers can use this information to see how widespread a virus might be in crowded places like airports or health care facilities.

“Drones provide a unique solution to the issues brought on by the coronavirus crisis—bolstering delivery capacity while keeping citizens safe at home—and many are eager to put them to use,” said Yariv Bash, CEO and co-founder of drone delivery startup Flytrex.

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