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Drones could soon deliver medical supplies in NC

Lifesaving deliveries by Zipline drone in Rwanda

Zipline operates the world’s only drone delivery system at national scale to send urgent medicines, such as blood and animal vaccines, to those in need – no matter where they live.
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Zipline operates the world’s only drone delivery system at national scale to send urgent medicines, such as blood and animal vaccines, to those in need – no matter where they live.

Drones could soon be ferrying blood and other medical supplies to hospitals and clinics in North Carolina if the N.C. Department of Transportation’s bid to be part of a federal test program is approved.

NCDOT is leading a team of private companies that proposes to set up a network of distribution centers that would use unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) to make medical deliveries in North Carolina. The drone delivery companies, including Matternet and Zipline, operate overseas but not in the U.S.

“We’re really excited that drone technology may allow doctors and hospitals to save more lives in North Carolina soon,” Bobby Walston, the state Director of Aviation, said in a statement. “We’ve been researching and investing in drone technology for years at NCDOT. This proposal represents the next big step for us as we remain a national leader in the UAS field.”

The North Carolina proposal is one of about 210 applications to the Federal Aviation Administration’s Drone Integration Pilot Program, a three-year effort launched by the Trump administration last fall to test drones for various purposes to help determine how to safely expand the use of commercial drones in the U.S.

Matternet's M2 Drone is authorized by the Swiss aviation authority for full logistics operations over cities. Designed to carry payloads of up to 2 kilograms and 4 liters over distances of up to 20 kilometers.

Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao has said that the FAA plans to choose about 10 teams for the program, says NCDOT spokesman James Pearce. He said if North Carolina is chosen, there’s no firm timetable for when drones would begin making medical deliveries in the state.

“We don’t exactly know when you’ll see these drones flying around here, but the technology that we’re trying to do already exists,” Pearce said. “They’re doing it in Europe. They’re doing it in Africa.”

The commercial use of drones has been limited by federal safety rules that require that drone pilots be able to see their craft while they’re flying. Trump announced the test program in late October to allow exceptions to the federal rules and demonstrate how drones can be safely integrated “into the national airspace system.”

NCDOT was ready to put together an application because of its work with drones in recent years, Pearce said. The department has already been working with software companies such as Raleigh-based PrecisionHawk to develope systems to track drones as they fly.

The FAA will decide by May 7 which teams of applicants will participate in the test program.

Richard Stradling: 919-829-4739, @RStradling

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