As their prevalence within the global healthcare logistics industry grows, medical drones could be clearing the way for drone deliveries of all kinds.
The sight of airborne drones delivering everyday items to customer’s homes, from Amazon or elsewhere, has yet to be seen. In the area of healthcare logistics, however, start-ups are making progress, delivering medical supplies to remote regions. They have plenty of incentive, beyond the humanitarian: Healthcare logistics is a $70 billion global market.
Among the more high-profile is Zipline, a San Francisco-based start-up founded in 2014. It works directly with governments to get off the ground, and in 2016 launched the world’s first commercial drone delivery service in Rwanda. It now operates a national medical drone network in the country. This year Zipline opened its first distribution centre in Ghana, where it is currently expanding. In May the firm announced $190 million in new financing, bringing its valuation to $1.2 billion.
The logistical problem of getting life-saving medical supplies to inaccessible, remote – or even not-so-remote – areas quickly, on demand, is not limited to developing countries. Zipline’s ambitions are global, and it is now working with the U.S. state of North Carolina to launch there.
In March, California-based Matternet announced a partnership with multinational logistics company UPS to transport medical samples via drone, also in North Carolina. Matternet has been operating medical drones in Switzerland since 2017 in cooperation with the Swiss postal service.
As drone delivery companies expand within the healthcare segment, their experiences navigating the regulatory and commercial challenges will likely help chart a course for the drone industry overall. Urgent medical care certainly presents compelling reasons to test the technology. As The Economist explains, “Drones can fall out of the sky, can collide with other air traffic, create perceived privacy concerns and they can be noisy. This is hard to justify when they are delivering a light bulb. When they carry life-saving medicines the calculation is different.”
Medical parcels are lightweight, so drone costs are relatively low and offer cost and efficiency gains along the supply chain. Andreas Raptopoulos, CEO of Matternet, says drones could save hospitals millions, as they eliminate the need to keep expensive medicines oh hand just in case they are needed. Being lightweight and electric, drones are also likely to be less expensive than car or motorcycle couriers, not to mention faster and more eco-friendly.
Ultimately the future of drone deliveries of all kinds, in all places, is in the hands of regulators. In less-developed countries, the matter is far simpler. In developed countries, the approval process is more complex and slower, due to their crowded airspace and more extensive regulation. But in the U.S., the pace is picking up. Amazon, Google and Uber Eats have all cleared the first regulatory hurdle, and are waiting in the wings.