SALT LAKE CITY — The company that’s become widely known as “Big Brown” has traveled a lot of miles since its birth as a bicycle courier service plying the muddy byways of Seattle back in 1907, since then growing into the largest package delivery operation on the planet.
And now, United Parcel Service is leveraging its 100-plus years of expertise to lead out in the burgeoning realm of drone-based delivery systems, becoming the first enterprise in the U.S. to successfully launch a commercial drone delivery operation earlier this year in North Carolina. The company is now set to head up a groundbreaking new health care-focused drone program at the University of Utah, which will be among the first of its kind in the world, ferrying things like blood and tissue samples, pharmaceuticals and even medical instruments between the university’s medical campus and facilities at Research Park.
As the system is perfected, and federal regulation catches up, the drone network could be extended to the health care provider’s wider system, which includes community clinics and specialty care centers up and down the Wasatch Front.
Dan Gagnon, UPS vice president of marketing and global health care strategy, said at its heart, the new drone program is simply an extension of the work his company has been doing since its inception.
“This is, in its simplest form, moving products,” Gagnon said. “It’s just moving something from point A to point B with integrated systems at takeoff and delivery. That’s what we do every day ... it’s our natural, core muscle.”
It is also, Gagnon noted, a service set to play a role in advancing the critical medical care and services provided by the university’s vast health care operations.
“We feel fortunate to be in a position where we can leverage our expertise and technological advancements to have a positive impact on patients’ lives,” Gagnon said.
Gagnon said the new program will be operated by UPS using advanced drones from the Menlo Park, California-based manufacturer Matternet to fly routes that will initially be limited to connecting facilities on the Utah campus with Research Park. Gagnon likened the role of his company to that of an airline, with UPS in this instance as the airline operator and Matternet, the vehicle provider.
Jim Turnbull, chief information officer for University of Utah Hospitals and Clinics, said the the effort comes with a host of regulatory and infrastructure challenges and an overarching commitment to safe operations.
Turnbull said the drones, which can carry up to about 5 pounds, will be delivering a large variety of payloads such as medications, lab specimens, medical instruments, blood samples, documents and more. Currently, ground vehicles are making those deliveries. Turnbull noted that while the trips from the university to Research Park take about 15 minutes, a drone can fly the route in about three to four minutes. He said the drone delivery program will not only save time, but help reduce negative air quality impacts by reducing vehicle miles traveled.
Turnbull said plans are in place to have the university’s new drone delivery system making its initial flights before the end of the year.
UPS, in partnership with Matternet, has been running a similar operation in Raleigh, North Carolina, for WakeMed Health and Hospitals since March. Like University of Utah Health operations, WakeMed has multiple facilities and faced similar challenges in finding an efficient method for the delivery of critical supplies and test samples. Gagnon said the ground-based systems end up functioning like “milk-run deliveries” with vehicles making multiple stops along the way on routes that could run for half the day or more.
Moving packages through the air is an arena in which UPS has long been operating, and the company currently has a fleet of 255 jets. Gagnon said the long-running relationship the company has with the Federal Aviation Administration, the agency that is also overseeing new regulations to manage commercial drone flight operations, has aided UPS in leading out on its forays into drone deliveries.
“We operate flights in over 200 countries and we have a very deep understanding of aviation regulations here in the U.S. and around the world,” Gagnon said. “Because of those relationships we can sit down and work with regulators and it’s a very collaborative process.”
That collaboration recently led the FAA to grant UPS a full Part 135 certification, a sign-off that allows the company to operate and widely deploy its package-carrying drones. It is the first, and only time thus far, the agency has issued the full standard commercial flight certificate to a drone airline operator.
UPS CEO David Abney celebrated the achievement in a statement issued after the announcement was made in early October.
“This is history in the making, and we aren’t done yet,” Abney said. “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.”
While UPS appears to be successfully leveraging experience, connections and strategic partnerships to lead out in the industry, including a recently announced collaboration with pharmacy giant CVS, numerous competitors are feverishly working to deploy their own automated flying delivery systems.
Amazon, Google, Airbus and others have been testing vehicles and are close behind UPS and Matternet in getting functional systems up and running, with each entity flying its own and decidedly different drone vehicles.
Matternet’s sleek, white quadcopter rests on four feet when idle, accommodating a signature brown UPS cargo box that, when coupled with a soon-to-be-released automated landing/takeoff platform, is capable of self-loading and securing the cargo boxes as well as swapping out its onboard batteries, as necessary. The zippy drone has a cruising speed of 30-40 mph and operates at altitudes up to 400 feet above the ground, per FAA rules.
Matternet’s director of business development, Ben Hansen, said his company is one of the few commercial drone manufacturers with real-world experience and has been, in addition to the WakeMed operations, flying similar deliveries in Switzerland since 2017 and accumulating over 5,000 commercial delivery flights so far.
Hansen said the Switzerland program has also been flying drones in a fully-automated capacity, i.e. flights that travel beyond the visual line of sight of operators and are capable of navigating via onboard GPS and intelligence provided by the Matternet Cloud Platform. The company is approved to operate in the same capacity in the U.S. after being evaluated and validated by the FAA as meeting the safety requirements for use with an air carrier certificate.
Hansen said his company, which was founded in 2011, has been focused on building airborne transport solutions particularly for urban areas were growth and density have combined to create incredibly difficult logistics for ground-based deliveries, particularly when it comes to the kind of time sensitive and critical items that need to be transported as part of health care operations.
“Roadway infrastructure that has been put into place in and around urban zones has been placed under tremendous pressure, due to an explosion in population density and the demand for physical transfer of items on demand,” Hansen said. “That relates a very high level of stress on how physical supply chains work in cities.”
Hansen said Matternet has combined advanced vehicle development, integrated takeoff and landing systems with operational software to create a solution that safely elevates delivery systems above roadways and out of the fray of dense, hectic and unpredictable ground-based traffic.
“Our technology stack is architected and optimized for urban health care and logistics applications,” Hansen said. “We have the drone, the landing architecture, the stations concept and the cloud software that acts as the glue to bring those aspect together.”
Following the announcement of the FAA sign-off last month, Matternet CEO Andreas Raptopoulos said his company has positioned itself to transform the logistics world at large.
“We founded Matternet with the belief that we must create a new layer of transportation, using networks of drones for delivering urgent items on-demand at a fraction of the time, cost and ecological footprint of any other transportation method,” Raptopoulos said in a statement. “Our technology has the power to transform health care and the world of logistics at large. Today’s announcement is bringing us one step closer to this reality.”
Deseret UAS (unmanned aerial systems) is a Utah-based drone industry trade group launched four years ago that is working to become the go-to organization for all things drone-related in Utah. Tooele County Commissioner Shawn Milne is Deseret’s executive director and board chairman and an enthusiastic advocate for the state’s burgeoning drone industry.
Milne characterized UPS’ accomplishment of earning the FAA certificate as a “watershed moment in aviation history” and lauded the U. for leading out with the new, cutting-edge drone delivery program.
“The significance of this moment cannot be overstated,” Milne said. “We are beyond excited that UPS has selected Utah to expand their operations and we look forward to a collaborative partnership with them and other industry partners.
“As a state-funded nonprofit organization seeking to advance the urban air mobility industry in Utah, Deseret UAS applauds the University of Utah Health for their innovative, forward-thinking approach to adopting drone technologies. The efficient aerial delivery of lifesaving materials will have a direct, immediate benefit for patients.”