First vaccine delivery by drone in the USA

It has taken them a few months to get here, but the USA have decided to follow Africa’s example, and might have made its first ever COVID-19 vaccine delivery with a drone.

The delivery was made by package delivery company UPS, whose Flight Forward division made its first unmanned aerial vaccine delivery for Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, using new cold chain packaging developed specifically for drones.

For the delivery to happen, UPS’s drone airline had to satisfy a number of requirements, one of which was to get permission from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to carry alkaline and lithium batteries, which are needed to power temperature monitoring devices required by the CDC for COVID-19 vaccine transport.

The company also had to work with insulated packaging solutions provider, Cold Chain Technologies to design a custom, drone-sized solution to maintain temperature control at two to eight degrees Celsius. Like other COVID-19 vaccine shipments handled by UPS, these drone deliveries include a temperature monitoring device required by the CDC.

“This program paves the way for drones to become a meaningful link within highly-specialized cold chain logistics,” said Dan Gagnon, vice president of global marketing for UPS Healthcare.

“Not only are UPS Flight Forward and Cold Chain Technologies demonstrating a more sustainable way to open vaccine access to remote communities, but the implications extend far beyond COVID-19. This new cold chain drone capability is a proof point of opportunity for all our healthcare customers, including clinical trial shipments, cold chain pharmaceuticals and other temperature-sensitive biologics.”

UPS added that the autonomous, battery-powered drones produce zero operational emissions and are subjected to less vibration than packages moving by ground transport. They require less insulation and can utilise gel packs instead of dry ice since they spend less time in transit.

“For Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist, drones have been carrying specialty infusion medicines and lab specimens for over a year, said UPS in a statement. “Infusion medicines are patient-specific and high-cost, with a short shelf life — so delivery by drone within 10 minutes is an ideal solution. Using drones to shuttle vaccines and other pharmaceuticals from its main campus to its network of clinics can improve productivity in its pharmacy by as much as 30 percent.”

This program is the second COVID-19 vaccine drone delivery operation globally, following drone deliveries in Ghana in Africa supported by a public-private partnership between The UPS Foundation, UPS Flight Forward, Zipline and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance.


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