In mid-July, a UPS subsidiary called Flight Forward and the drone company Matternet started a project with the Wake Forest Baptist Health system in North Carolina. The companies' aims are decidedly futuristic: to ferry specialty medicines and protective equipment between two of the system's facilities, less than a half-mile apart. Think of it: little flying machines, zipping about at speeds up to 43 mph, bearing the goods to heal. At this point, though, the drone operations are a little, well, human. The quadcopters must be operated by specialized drone pilots, who must pass a challenging aeronautical knowledge test to get their licenses.
Tech visionaries may tantalize us with visions of instant gratification via drone delivery, but Silicon Valley has yet to deliver on such promises. Meanwhile, halfway around the globe in an African country barely the size of Maryland, drone deliveries have already taken flight--with more serious cargo than burritos. Jeremy Hsu is a science and tech journalist based in New York. Sign up to get Backchannel's weekly newsletter. In October 2016, Rwandan crowds cheered the launch and landing of delivery drones developed and operated by Zipline, a San Francisco-based startup.
If you're interested in drone deliveries, it's likely because you want your internet shopping dropped at your door within an hour of clicking "buy." And while companies like Amazon are working to make that happen, complicated logistics and thorny regulations mean it's likely to be years before you start hearing the whir of rotors on your front porch. Yet drones are already proving their worth with more urgent, medical, missions. The latest of these comes from Silicon Valley startup Matternet, which has been testing an autonomous drone network over Switzerland, shuttling blood and other medical samples between hospitals and testing facilities. "We have a vision of a distributed network, not hub and spoke, but true peer-to-peer," says Matternet CEO Andreas Raptopoulos.
Matternet CEO Andreas Raptopoulos walks next to an operator carrying a drone used to deliver medical specimens after a flight in March at WakeMed Hospital in Raleigh, N.C. Matternet CEO Andreas Raptopoulos walks next to an operator carrying a drone used to deliver medical specimens after a flight in March at WakeMed Hospital in Raleigh, N.C. Underneath it is a metal box -- smaller than a shoebox -- with vials of blood samples inside of it that are now heading across the campus to the lab for analysis, guided by a drone operator on the ground. "This facility happens to be across a very busy road from our main campus hospital," says Stuart Ginn, an ENT surgeon and medical director of innovations at WakeMed. But when taken by carrier on foot or by car, he says "the logistics of getting those samples across often resulted in about a 45-minute time of delivery."
The autonomous drone logistics platform Matternet has raised $16 million in a Series A funding round led by Boeing Horizon X Ventures, with investments by Swiss Post, Sony Innovation Fund and Levitate Capital. The funding is a vote of confidence in what many already believe will be a standard feature of our lives in the near future. Matternet has launched drone deliveries in the healthcare sector, with a successful program in Lugano, Switzerland, in partnership with Swiss Post and Mercedes-Benz Vans. It has conducted more than 1,700 flights for the Ticino EOC Hospital Group and delivered over 850 patient samples over densely populated areas without incident. This month, Matternet and Swiss Post expanded the operation to test new hospital-to-hospital networks in Bern and Zurich.