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Need for safer drug delivery during pandemic may spur use of drones

Drone technology, which in some cases has been grounded by U.S. government rules and concerns, may end up playing a role in delivering medicines and other key supplies during the coronavirus pandemic.

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George Mason University Senior Research Fellow Robert Graboyes

Source: George Mason University

Drone deliveries of medical supplies have been utilized in African countries like Ghana and Rwanda, but the U.S. has been slow to adopt the practice, according to Robert Graboyes, senior research fellow and healthcare scholar at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

While working at the Mercatus Center, a nonprofit free-market-focused research center, Graboyes has published articles and research papers about the future of healthcare technology including the technological and policy challenges related to drones and the implementation of drone deliveries in Africa.

In Rwanda, private drone company Zipline Inc. has been delivering blood to hospitals since 2016. Graboyes said it has caused a massive difference in the country.

"You picture, for instance, a mother who is hemorrhaging during childbirth and needs rare blood and needs it fast. And you can either drive it there in six hours or you can stick it on a drone and get it there in 20 minutes," Graboyes said.

U.S. falling behind

Concerns about security risks as well as limited sensing technology have placed the U.S. behind China in the drone delivery market.

Graboyes said many drones are not yet capable of sensing every airplane overhead.

In October 2019, The New York Times reported that the Interior Department would be grounding all of its drones that were made in China or had parts made in China over concerns that the software inside these drones could relay U.S. data back to the Chinese government.

In a crisis situation like this one, drones could allow sick patients to get medical supplies without risking the health of a pilot or another person, Graboyes said.

In February, China-based drone company EHang Holdings Ltd. tested its two-seat autonomous aerial vehicle's ability to deliver medical supplies by filling it with the supplies and flying it about 2.5 miles from Hezhou Square to Hezhou People's Hospital. In a March 24 earnings call, Edward Xu, Chief Strategy Officer for EHang, said the success of this project could mean big things for the company and for combatting the coronavirus.

"Our machines can send people and cargo to the area, which can be dangerous, without any pilots in it. So this can prevent any spreading of the disease to other human beings," Xu said.

Drone testing underway

The Federal Aviation Administration has taken an interest in drones in recent years.

Last October, the FAA approved United Parcel Service Inc.'s Flight Forward Program, which would create a drone airline using drones from private company Matternet Inc. In February 2019, UPS began testing medical deliveries with these drones at WakeMed's hospital and campus in Raleigh, N.C., and a year later, the company announced a similar partnership with the University of California San Diego's Health System.

A UPS representative told S&P Global Market Intelligence via email that the company is exploring ways its Flight Forward program can be used during the coronavirus crisis.

Drug retailers CVS Health Corp. and Walgreens also started testing drone deliveries of products in 2019. A CVS representative said the company is dedicating more capacity to its drone delivery efforts but did not provide further specific information. A representative for Walgreens could not be reached.

'Technological civil disobedience'

When, or if, the U.S. government realizes the potential benefits of medical supplies drone delivery during the coronavirus crisis, it may temporarily skirt rules and regulations that are already in place against drones. This phenomenon, dubbed by Mercatus Senior Research Fellow Adam Thierer as "technological civil disobedience," has already been seen to some extent so far with pharmaceutical companies, medical device companies and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

During this unprecedented time, Graboyes said, concerns about drone security and the number of planes in the sky may come second to getting medical supplies to people in need. If drone technology can really help people during the pandemic, then it is only a matter of how quickly the technology can be put to work.

"Right now actually the federal government, the Trump administration, is saying in a lot of instances, 'You know what? Just go do it. We don't really have the luxury of having a nice, calm debate about this right now,'" Graboyes said.