Operated by UPS and its subsidiary, UPS Flight Forward, the drones are delivering vaccines from Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston Salem to one of the health system’s family medicine practices located at Piedmont Plaza, around a one mile [1.6km] drive by car.
When transporting the COVID-19 vaccines, the Matternet M2 drone is outfitted with a special cargo box that contains Cold Chain Technologies’ customized PCM Gel solution, a temperature-sensitive packaging mixture that maintains the COVID-19 vaccine at 2 to 8 degrees Celsius, and a temperature monitoring device that monitors the vaccine’s temperature while in transit.
The customized cold chain packaging adheres to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines on the handling, storage and transportation of the COVID-19 vaccine.
And the logistics company said its drone airline received a first-of-kind approval from the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to carry alkaline and lithium batteries, which are needed to power temperature monitoring devices required by the CDC for COVID-19 vaccine transport.
The autonomous, battery-powered drones produce zero operational emissions and are subjected to less vibration than packages moving by ground transport, said UPS. "They require less insulation and can utilize gel packs instead of dry ice since they spend less time in transit."
Thes program paves the way for drones to become a meaningful link within highly-specialized cold chain logistics, argues Dan Gagnon, vice president of global marketing for UPS Healthcare.
“Not only are UPS Flight Forward and Cold Chain Technologies demonstrating a more sustainable way to open vaccine access to remote communities, but the implications extend far beyond COVID-19,” Gagnon continued. “This new cold chain drone capability is a proof point of opportunity for all our healthcare customers, including clinical trial shipments, cold chain pharmaceuticals and other temperature-sensitive biologics.”
Because COVID-19 vaccines require strict temperature-control throughout the supply chain, Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist securely stores the vaccine at its central pharmacy before transporting supplies to immunization centers located throughout the community.
That health care provider has been using drones to carry specialty infusion medicines and lab specimens for over a year. Infusion medicines are patient-specific and high-cost, with a short shelf life—so delivery by drone within 10 minutes is an ideal solution, said UPS.
"Using drones to shuttle vaccines and other pharmaceuticals from its main campus to its network of clinics can improve productivity in its pharmacy by as much as 30%," claims the logistics company.
This program is the second COVID-19 vaccine drone delivery operation globally, following drone deliveries in Ghana in Africa supported by a public-private partnership between The UPS Foundation, UPS Flight Forward, Zipline and Gavi.
Ghana’s health ministry partnered with those organizations to get the vaccines to remote, rural areas where access by road would prove challenging and costly.
But how effective are drones compared to traditional delivery means?
A piece on TechStream, a Brookings Institute platform, stresses how there is little in the way of public information on how drones compare, in time and price, to traditional means of moving medical supplies.
“Zipline doesn’t release figures on how much each delivery actually costs, and the cost-effectiveness of using drones remains uncertain.
"A 2019 study concluded that in West Africa motorcycles are a more cost-effective means of transporting laboratory samples compared to drones, and a 2021 World Economic Forum and Deloitte report concluded that drone programs struggle to become cost-effective for governments unless they have three factors in place: an affordable drone-technology vendor, expensive ground transportation, and large scale.
"Drones likely have little value for COVID-19 testing in most cases. As a September 2020 UNICEF report pointed out, COVID lab-tests typically take 12 to 72 hours to produce a result, and a drone that shaves a few minutes off delivery times probably isn’t worth the trouble."
Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist is an academic health system based in Winston-Salem, North Carolina and part of Atrium Health Enterprise.
Its two main components are an integrated clinical system – anchored by Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, an 885-bed tertiary-care hospital in Winston-Salem – that includes Brenner Children’s Hospital, five community hospitals, more than 300 primary and specialty care locations and more than 2,700 physicians; and Wake Forest School of Medicine, the academic core of Atrium Health Enterprise that includes Wake Forest Innovations, a commercialization enterprise focused on advancing health care through new medical technologies and biomedical discovery.