This onion-shaped sculpture is actually a delivery drone launch station

Matternet’s new drone station looks like something out of a science fiction movie. But it’s really the next step in the company’s push to make health care more efficient and cut costs.

Eight feet tall, the unit can be placed at ground level or on a rooftop. Hospital staff will place samples that need to get tested inside the station, and it will autonomously load those samples into a drone. Then the top of the tower will unfurl to launch the drone into the air—getting the package to a nearby lab for the quickest possible results.

When samples need to be delivered from a clinic or a satellite facility of a hospital to a main lab, the standard practice “typically takes between one and two hours, even if it’s urgent,” said Matternet Co-founder and CEO Andreas Raptopoulos. “With our system, we’ll get it in a matter of minutes.”

Saving time has obvious benefits for patients, especially when immediate treatment is needed or when patients are waiting under anesthesia for lab results before a surgeon can continue operating. Instead of running multiple labs, a hospital could potentially rely on just one. “Just to give you a sense of the opportunity here, every lab that a hospital is able to shut down eventually is probably around $1 million in savings per year for that hospital system,” Raptopoulos said. Matternet bills hospitals and clinics at an annual rate, so making 10,000 deliveries costs no more than making 1,000.

Until now, Matternet has used an on-site attendant to take samples from medical staff, load a drone, and launch it. But to scale up the system, more automation was necessary, and it began testing an autonomous station in 2017. Now, with the new station, when a lab tech takes a patient’s blood sample, they’ll use an app to enter the details of the package, scan their badge, and put it in the new drone station themselves. The station automatically confirms that the QR code on the package matches the app, then loads it into a drone. There are multiple slots in the station, so medical workers can pre-stage the next sample if a delivery is already out.

“We really believe that health care should have at its disposal the most advanced logistics methods that technology can provide,” said Raptopoulos. “So our vision is that in every city, around every major health care system in the country, and in many countries, you have this type of new capability that allows medical items to be transported in a very efficient, very fast way.”

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