SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — The emerging use of drones in medical settings could be coming to a hospital near you sooner than you might think.
A top Sanford Health executive said the health care provider is looking into the use of drones for hospital deliveries to quickly and efficiently transport small, light items such as medical specimens bound for testing that otherwise require the use of a human courier or something similar.
"I think about small, lightweight, maybe valuable, potentially lifesaving-type articles that might fit into that niche," said Dean Weber, Sanford Health vice president of corporate supply chain management. "The one that comes to mind ... is diagnostic specimens."
Weber cautioned the drone discussions are still in their early stages, with regulations still up in the air and questions about how to handle dozens of delivery drones buzzing in and out of a medical center where space — including airspace — comes at a premium.
"Obviously, we're not going to deliver the type of bulky, voluminous-type supplies with a drone, but you could see something that was lifesaving, maybe moving pharmaceuticals, depending on the legality as such," he said.
But there are signs federal regulators are growing increasingly comfortable with moving medical and commercial drone delivery past the testing stage.
On Oct. 1, package delivery service UPS said it received approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to create what it calls a "drone airline." The FAA awarded the Part 135 Standard certification to a company for the first time, UPS said, which means the company no longer has restrictions on the size and scope of its operations. The certification also permits drones to carry payloads over 55 pounds and fly at night.
UPS subsidiary UPS Flight Forward partnered with drone startup Matternet and health care provider WakeMed in Raleigh, N.C., earlier this year to offer a health care delivery service on WakeMed's hospital campus. Now, it plans to expand drone deliveries of medical equipment and specimens to hospital campuses "around the country," it said.
“This is history in the making, and we aren’t done yet,” said David Abney, UPS chief executive officer, in a news release. “Our technology is opening doors for UPS and solving problems in unique ways for our customers. We will soon announce other steps to build out our infrastructure, expand services for health care customers and put drones to new uses in the future."
The UPS certification is a "big deal," said Mark Askelson, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of North Dakota who specializes in drones and the systems that will allow them to fly in crowded skies.
"Collectively, the industry is starting to get past some of these hurdles," he said. "They're developing systems that are safe enough that we — no kidding — can start to realize actual flights."
But UPS drone operations are still somewhat limited, he said. They have yet to receive widespread permission to fly their drones beyond line of sight of the operator since doing so requires drones and systems capable of, essentially, not running into each other.
But such development is a matter of time, in the air and on the ground, such as automated delivery via drone tractor-trailers, he said.
"I think we're going to radically alter how we deliver products by using automated technology," he said. "When you bring those tools to bear, you can change how your distribution system works.
Weber, of Sanford Health, said one use that could be fruitful in a health care setting is the two-way delivery of goods, especially from remote sites — common in Sanford's network of locations across the region.
"If you're a small facility and you have a box, either a diagnostic specimen or important paperwork or whatever, and a drone can be dispatched to pick it up, that seems to have some value ... for the customer as well," he said.
Askelson said he expects the world will look different in 10 years with drone deliveries being more common, and in another decade, they'll be commonplace.
"I think it will, in some ways, have a major impact on how we deliver goods and products," he said. "Not just the last five miles to the end user, but even your overall product distribution system."