A N.C. Department of Transportation project to test the use of drones to carry medical supplies around the state has been approved by the federal government.
NCDOT's proposal was one of only 10 accepted into the Federal Aviation Administration’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems 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 their use in the U.S. The government had received 210 applications.
NCDOT is working with private companies to set up a network of distribution centers that use unmanned aircraft systems or UAS to deliver blood and other medical supplies faster. The drone delivery companies, including Matternet, Flytrex and Zipline, operate overseas but not in the U.S.
Also involved in the North Carolina test program UAS software companies such as PrecisionHawk of Raleigh, which NCDOT has been working with to develop systems that track drones as they fly.
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And Apple will be a partner in the project to improve the imagery on Apple Maps of North Carolina. The company issued a statement about its involvement that sought to head off fears that drones will violate people's privacy.
“Apple collects both aerial and ground images around the world to improve Apple Maps, and we will soon begin to capture additional aerial images in select areas using drones," the company said. "Apple is committed to protecting people's privacy including processing this data to blur faces and license plates prior to publication.”
Stuart Ginn, a surgeon who helps lead the Innovations department at WakeMed, said being able to ship blood or tissue samples from doctor's offices to labs would speed test results and save money. WakeMed, which will be the first medical system to test the drones under the state's program, has 72 facilities in Wake and Johnston counties, ranging from doctors' offices to the county's top trauma center.
"Speed is a big problem. Efficiency is a big problem," Ginn said. "And then cost is a big problem. because the technology that's available now is a person in a truck, carrying a very small lab sample."
U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine L. Chao announced the 10 teams chosen for the test program at a ceremony in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday. On hand was NCDOT's chief deputy secretary David Howard.
"The future of flight is unmanned," Howard said at a press conference at Raleigh-Durham International Airport on Friday. "And we're thrilled to be part of aviation's next chapter. Because of this program, drones will be in the sky soon over our state delivering life-saving medical supplies."
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.”
The North Carolina program will be able to build off what companies such as Zipline have been able to do overseas, said Darshan Divakaran, a UAS program engineer for NCDOT. Divakaran said the team hopes to begin flying drones under the program as soon as August.
Zipline's drones make thousands of flights a year carrying blood and vaccines around the East African country of Rwanda, a country where poor roads and high demand for medical services made it difficult for hospitals to maintain their inventory, said Tyler McNish, an attorney for the company who was at RDU on Friday. McNish said the company's drones have a range of 100 miles, limited only by the life of the battery.