A small college campus in Virginia buzzed this spring not with students but with drones.
The little flyers were being tested by a Virginia Beach company and other groups to see if they could be used during the coronavirus crisis, or perhaps at any time, to help the medical profession deliver goods to people.
DroneUp LLC, which specialized in unmanned aerial systems, entered a partnership to test how it can fight the spread of COVID-19 and support the social distancing protocols instituted nationwide.
Tom Walker, DroneUp’s chief executive officer, who founded the company in 2016, said delivery of over-the-counter medicines is one of the promises of drones.
“When people look at drones they say ‘What are they going to do for us?’” Walker said. He noted that they already have many commercial applications, such as being used for cell phone tower inspections.
“And during emergency response, everybody is keenly aware now they can be a force multiplier.”
From the federal government to local officials, inquiries about drone usage during the crisis were coming in and Walker decided that it was incumbent upon the industry to conduct an operationally-based exercise that produced data and lessons learned to ensure they can respond safely, effectively and efficiently when needed.
DroneUp joined with another drone technology company, Workhouse Group, delivery company UPS and its subsidiary, UPS Flight Forward, and Virginia’s Center for Innovative Technology to test the use of commercial drones to add safety, speed, predictability and efficiency to healthcare logistics.
Exercises to test residential and commercial package deliveries by drones were done this spring on the unoccupied campus of St. Paul’s College in Lawrenceville, Virginia.
Thirty people — all wearing masks, practicing social distancing and taking temperature checks — participated in the test.
“DroneUp’s drone delivery exercise was aimed at learning what is possible to do safely and effectively today while gathering data to overcome seemingly impossible obstacles in the near future,” Walker said.
The data collected from the fast-paced simulation ascertained how private sector drone operators can enhance emergency response and select patient care.
The conclusions and recommendations were sent to the federal and local government officials and industry leaders in a report created by Joe Fuller, DroneUp’s chief information officer.
“The delivery testing and outcomes prove that drones can be used to safely deliver critical items to a quarantine area,” Fuller said. “Experienced drone pilots could be quickly dispatched to hot zones to provide real assistance in pandemic response.”
Gov. Ralph Northam said in a news release that he is encouraged to see so many private sector partners stepping up and thinking innovatively to work together to combat COVID-19.
“Drones can be an important way to deliver medical supplies while people stay home to adhere to our social distancing guidelines,” Northam said. “Virginia is well-positioned to be a leader in the unmanned system industry and we are pleased to be part of this initiative.”
Scott Price, UPS chief strategy and transformation officer, said they have proven that effective drone delivery of medical products can be faster than conventional ground-based transportation.
“Drones offer a low-touch option for delivery of lab specimens and medical products that could make a significant impact in an urgent response application,” Price said.
Duane Hughes, chief executive officer for Workhouse Group, a Cincinnati, Ohio-based company, said they have made hundreds of autonomous drone deliveries in the National Airspace System over the last four years using its proprietary technology combined with its all-electric delivery vehicles.
“We have a comprehensive understanding of the benefits provided by a drone delivery when speed counts,” Hughes said.
Walker said DroneUp will act as the operational component providing pilots, technology and services to execute the last mile delivery in partnership with global delivery companies.
“I think the outcome of the exercise is that we will be delivering over-the-counter, non-prescription medications this year as a result of COVID and the exercise,” Walker said.
Sandra J. Pennecke, 757-222-5356, [email protected]
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