When a hospital needs to rush a delivery from a lab somewhere else in a densely populated city–for example, when a surgeon needs an urgent biopsy of a tumor in the middle of a surgery to determine how much tissue to remove, or a gunshot victim in the ER needs blood that the hospital doesn’t have in stock–that delivery can sometimes get stuck in traffic. Couriers are also expensive. In Switzerland, hospitals and labs will soon begin using drones to make those deliveries instead.
Permanent drone delivery networks are already in use in Africa, where drones send units of blood for transfusions to remote clinics in Rwanda, and will soon deliver other medical supplies such as antimalarial drugs and emergency vaccines in Tanzania. But Switzerland will be the first country in the developed world to have permanent drone networks, with drones flying through urban airspace near busy international airports.
Matternet, a Silicon Valley-based tech company, designed the drones, along with a cloud system for sending and receiving platforms–and a newly launched system that can autonomously load, launch, and land the drones. “It allows us to have our drone system connecting facilities that don’t have any trained personnel on how to use the drone,” says Andreas Raptopoulos, founder and CEO of Matternet.
By the end of the year, the company will have small networks in place at labs and hospitals throughout Swiss cities. When a lab technician takes a sample that needs to be sent urgently, they’ll use an iPhone app to put a request in the system, and put the sample in a special container for biohazardous material. Then they’ll scan a QR code to load the container into the ground station outside, and then the system does the rest: pulling the sample inside, requesting a drone if one isn’t already on site, loading the drone with a freshly charged battery and the sample, and launching on a route generated by the cloud system. When the drone lands itself on another station at a hospital, someone inside is notified and retrieves the sample using the same app. When not in use, the drones will be stored in a secure room at a hospital.
Once the value of medical deliveries is proven, the company thinks that will serve as a bridge into other on-demand deliveries. “We share the enthusiasm of Amazon and Google and others that it has a potential to revolutionize on-demand e-commerce and on-demand transactions around goods,” says Raptopoulos. “The best way to start operating . . . is to start in places where first of all there’s a clear benefit, the margins are such that they can pay for this, and the economics work out for the customer, and you can easily make the argument that there’s public benefit behind it.”