Drugs by Drone: Good Idea?

With positive results from early tests, the drone industry is hopeful that lawmakers will increase their leniency in regulating drones. With this hope come questions about what should be considered a drone-deliverable item, specifically when it comes to controlled substances like pharmaceuticals.

There are many angles to this discussion, though Amazon and CVS have already teased medication delivery by drone. Some hurdles still stand in the way of drones delivering medication: Certain populations will be excluded from service because of drone regulations, drones can be shot down, stolen, or tampered with, and authenticating a customer’s identity can be a difficult process.

The pharmaceutical industry is going to need innovative technology to achieve success with the drone push, though there are few drone companies that have been able to change things too radically. Susan Lang, founder and CEO of drug pricing analytics company XIL Health, talks about the possibility of medicine delivery by drone. She points to CVS and UPS, which started a successful pilot program in May 2020 utilizing Matternet M2 drones. Thanks to authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration, the companies have been working together to deliver prescription medication to The Villages, a retirement community in Florida.

Lang also notes other successful projects: Walgreens started a partnership with Wing in hopes that over-the-counter medicines will be deliverable to people’s backyards. Johnson & Johnson has begun a pilot program in Uganda, expanding medication access to the Lake Victoria Kalangala District potentially more efficiently than boats. In Ireland, Manna Aero has been given permission by the Irish aviation system and the healthcare system to deliver medications to the elderly in the small village of Moneygall by drone. These are just a few of the public pilot programs that are currently taking place.

According to Lang, one of the most important things that needs to change is the infrastructure surrounding ease of access for consumers. Retail stores are in charge in the U.S. and Ireland, and in Uganda, pharmaceutical companies are directly involved in pilot programs. She also says that drones could bring innovation in disaster recovery, getting important supplies to people in emergency situations. Drones are also an obvious answer to COVID-related delivery fears and may be faster and safer than trucks and drivers, potentially improving supply chain issues.

As far as challenges, Lang notes that drones won’t be able to deliver every type of product, and some testing is still required. Class II drugs, like many opioids, are too sensitive to be transported in this manner. There are also issues of coordination between drones in the same neighborhoods and how the population will react to having drones visible around their homes. Healthcare companies will often partner with third-party drone developers to test these questions.

In Susan Lang’s opinion, drones are currently better suited for suburban and rural environments. She notes the many variables present in urban areas and considers them a higher risk for flight. Difference in geography also poses an issue. What the drone industry needs most right now is early adopters, like the EOC Hospital Group in Lugano, Switzerland, which has embarked on a medical supply delivery program with Matternet drones. And in Abu Dhabi, Matternet has partnered with the Abu Dhabi Department of Health and SkyGo to create a city-wide drone delivery network for the transportation of medical goods. The programs run by Walgreens and CVS are a great start for drone companies and having a pilot to test what works and what doesn’t is much more effective when backed by a large client.

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