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North Carolina delivery drones hone in on coronavirus relief

For a glimpse at the future of drone delivery, look to the skies above North Caroina, where drones are providing a number of delivery-based tasks. It’s all centered around supporting a variety of aspects of life that coronavirus has upended, from delivering medical test samples to bringing food to people’s homes.

North Carolina has been a big player in drones since May 2018, when the Federal Aviation Administration selected the NC Department of Transportation as one of 10 participants in its Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Pilot Program. But it’s getting a lot bigger in 2020, as the N.C. Department of Transportation’s Division of Aviation is working to launch a number of projects to aid in COVID-19 relief.

Here’s what you need to know about the latest in North Carolina delivery drones:

Delivering PPE across Novant medical campuses: East Coast medical facility network Novant Health is partnering with drone delivery company Zipline in a proposal to deliver personal protective equipment and other medical equipment across Novant Health’s medical campuses in the Charlotte area.

NCDOT officials said the program reduces strain on medical supply chains, adding that they will use data collected during the project to determine how this technology can be used in other areas of the country.

Transporting healthcare equipment around WakeMed’s Raleigh campus through UPS: UPS Flight Forward, the drone subsidiary of delivery giant UPS, spent a good chunk of 2019 expanding its medically-focused drone delivery services, primarily testing flights to deliver transfusions and other medical samples at WakeMed’s hospital campus in Raleigh, N.C. And, in October 2019, UPS received air carrier and operator certification from the Federal Aviation Administration. That opens a llot of doors for UPS, meaning it:

  • will no longer be limited by the size or scope of operations
  • can now fly an unlimited number of drones with an unlimited number of remote operators in command
  • can fly drones with cargo exceeding 55 pounds
  • can fly at night

And coronavirus isn’t holding UPS back — it’s provided a new opportunity. UPS Flight Forward and Matternet proposed a new project with a Winston-Salem hospital on an operation to use drones to take healthcare equipment, medicine and personal protective equipment to medical providers. UPS Flight Forward has been using drones built by delivery company Matternet, via their M2 quadcopter drone.

As part of the Raleigh project, C-UAS security and defense company Fortem Technologies announced it finished the first phase of the Drone Pilot Program, in which tracking incoming medical helicopter traffic and providing real-time alerts to Airmap (which is essential to enabling drones flying beyond a pilot’s visual line of sight).

“The phase one testing has shown promising results and we are hopeful the phase two operations will provide the information we need to receive a beyond-visual-line-of-sight waiver from the Federal Aviation Administration,” said Basil Yap, UAS Program Manager, NCDOT.

North Carolina delivery drones
Image courtesy of Fortem

Food deliveries from Flytrex: What’s a drone delivery program without tacos? Flytrex has proposed delivering food from shopping centers to nearby neighborhoods in Holly Springs.

Flytrex  is perhaps most well-known for its drone delivery operations in Reykjavik, Iceland.

NCDOT officials say food delivery isn’t a gimmick, supporting Flytrex’s proposed project because “it will make it easier for people to follow the stay at home order.”

Across the world, coronavirus has provided a landmark opportunity for drone delivery. Matterenet CEO Andreas Raptopoulos suggested in the past that developing countries tend to be more responsible to drone delivery because when there is a pressing need, regulatory hurdles are generally overcome more quickly. But now, coronavirus may have signaled that pressing need in the U.S. too.

Though, few companies are jumping on drone delivery. The biggest player outside of North Carolina’s operations right now is Google sister company Wing, which said it doubled the amount of drone deliveries made in the U.S. in April. Wing operates a drone delivery service in Virginia, also as part of the FAA’s  Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Pilot Program through a partnership with Virginia Tech and Virginia Tech’s Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership (MAAP).

Flytrex is also offering drone delivery service directly to backyards in Grand Forks, North Dakota. 

But the state known as the “first in flight,” might be the first in large scale drone deliveries.

“North Carolina has been a leader in demonstrating how drones can help people in times of crisis,” said State Transportation Secretary Eric Boyette. “We look forward to putting this technology into productive use as we work to help citizens and medical professionals during the COVID-19 pandemic.”  

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