Delivering medication to remote residents of rural areas is one of the most promising applications of aerial drones. Volansi Inc., which provides middle-mile drone delivery services, today announced that it has begun a commercial healthcare project in North Carolina. The Concord, Calif.-based company is working with Merck & Co. and Vidant Health.
Volansi makes long-range, heavy-payload, vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) drones. The company said it serves commercial, defense, and humanitarian use cases, and it raised $50 million in Series B funding last month. Kenilworth, N.J.-based Merck, which does business as Merck Sharp & Dohme outside the U.S. and Canada, is one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world.
Vidant Health is a 1,708-bed health system that includes more than 13,000 employees, nine hospitals, home health, hospice, and wellness centers, as well as Vidant Medical Group, a multi-specialty physician and provider group with more than 500 providers in more than 90 locations. The nonprofit is affiliated with The Brody School of Medicine at East Carolina University.
Volansi, Merck, and Vidant Health team up to improve access
With 1.4 million people across 29 counties, eastern North Carolina’s rural environment can make access to healthcare difficult. Volansi said it is piloting delivery of cold-chain medicines from Merck’s manufacturing plant in Wilson, N.C. to Vidant Healthplex-Wilson, a Vidant Health clinic.
The pilot is the first part of a three-phase project to learn about how drone technology can improve access to quality care. Initial flights in the project resulted in the first drone delivery of temperature-controlled medicines within the U.S., according to the companies.
“This project with Merck and Volansi is the beginning of an exciting endeavor to explore additional ways we can meet the unique needs of those we serve,” stated Brian Floyd, chief operating officer at Vidant.
The project uses Volansi’s VOLY C10, an all-electric drone capable of carrying 10 lb. of cargo to locations up to 50 miles away. The VOLY C10’s VTOL system enables it to deliver fragile cargo with a “soft touch” automated release once the drone has landed at the delivery location, said the company.
The VTOL system requires minimal infrastructure to operate and is capable of delivering on the returning flight items to support order confirmation like temperature trackers and shipping confirmation, Volansi added.
“Our existing distribution system is strong, and this pilot helps us explore new innovative delivery options that would complement our existing supply chain capabilities,” said Craig Kennedy, senior vice president of global supply chain management at Merck.
Volansi works with regulators
“We’ve seen the world’s supply chain strained like never before from the impact of coronavirus,” said Hannan Parvizian, co-founder and CEO of Volansi. “There’s now an accelerated need for rapid advancements in supply chain technology, especially in healthcare. Drone delivery is one solution to getting critical supplies where they are needed, at the moment they are needed most.”
Volansi said it is collaborating with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Unmanned Aircraft System Integration Pilot Program and the North Carolina Department of Transportation to ensure that its deliveries are made in accordance with state and federal safety guidelines.
The company plans to seek additional FAA approvals to provide deliveries in additional locations for Phases 2 and 3 of the project, whose goal is to enable a flexible, on-demand, and responsive supply of critical medicines.