Matternet CEO: Drones would be helpful right now if we could deploy them at scale

Even for a company so well equipped to handle the COVID-19 epidemic—with contact-free drone delivery of medical supplies—Matternet is still facing some obstacles.

In a recent interview with VentureBeat, Matternet CEO Andreas Raptopoulos talked about what the last few weeks have been like and where he wants the company to focus next.

Because Matternet supplies services to the health care industry, it has been able to maintain a skeleton crew at its San Francisco office. However, the company has had to stop operations in three of its four locations: San Diego, California, and Lugano and Zurich, Switzerland.

“When the outbreak started to happen, we started looking at what we can do to help.” Raptopoulos said. “We have been working on that with our partners, UPS, Swiss Post, and the FAA as well. We’ve been quite engaged in trying to figure out how we can launch operations that can help this new reality.”

When COVID-19 cases spiked, each hospital’s approach was different, but they were all variations on the theme of “in a crisis, you need to focus all your resources [on] dealing with that crisis. Your normal processes and procedures are stopped.”

Lugano, Switzerland—located near Milan, the center of the outbreak in Italy—was the first place Matternet had to pause its operations. The hospital in Lugano had to shut down its ER to repurpose it as a COVID-19 response facility, resulting in a shutdown of regular lab transport trips. The same thing happened in San Diego. In Zurich, the director of Switzerland’s main virology lab decided that all processes would be switched to COVID-19 response, and Matternet’s blood and urine sample deliveries were simply deprioritized.

The pause of operations “creates a very interesting tension,” according to Raptopoulos. “On the one hand, we have the technology that can really be helpful in these times. On the other hand, we are not yet deploying it to the scale that we wish to deploy it.”

Matternet is still running daily operations at WakeMed in North Carolina, but the volume has decreased greatly as elective surgeries are being postponed due to the COVID-19 crisis.

But the company has been exploring other potential customers. “We’ve been focused on two applications,” said Raptopoulos. “One is transporting COVID-19 tests from collection sites to labs. The second application is what everyone else is talking about, the so-called contactless delivery.”

Matternet has made progress on these applications, but they’re still up in the air, so to speak. It is working with UPS, the FAA, and two lab directors in two states to figure out what it can do to help.

Although drones have some technological limitations, the real obstacles are more in the regulatory and legal area: in the U.S., Matternet and its partner, UPS Flight Forward, have secured clearance to fly over people, but they also need clearance to fly outside the visual line of sight of the operator in order to be able to transport COVID-19 tests to labs and medications to customers.

“We have the infrastructure to scale this nationally,” Raptopoulos said. “Part of the discussions that we’ve been having with the FAA around these scaling operations is whether there is any appetite to accelerate and what will be the pathway for this acceleration. Our assumption going into the discussion is because there is a state of national emergency that has been declared at the federal level, there may be certain things that the FAA could do in order to accelerate. But we haven’t seen that happening yet.”

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