UPS’ advanced tech chief reveals how the pandemic has underscored the case for drone delivery, starting with moving medical supplies

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UPS has launched two health care-related drone delivery trials during the pandemic.
  • UPS, along with other delivery and logistics companies, is in a race to launch regular, commercial drone delivery systems.
  • In the past few months, UPS has begun pilot programs with CVS and a major hospital system, using drones to make deliveries and transport critical supplies.
  • In an exclusive interview with Business Insider, UPS' VP of Advanced Technologies explained how the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the use cases for drones.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

The logistics industry has been buzzing about drone delivery for years, but aside from a few high-profile pilot programs and conceptual tests, the tech has failed to materialize as a real-world solution for moving goods.

But drones are steadily coming closer to serving a practical use, according to Bala Ganesh, head of the Advanced Technologies Group at UPS.

"What we are right now in the process of, as we work through the integration pilot program with the FAA, is turn[ing] the corner to get to a more sustainable operation," Ganesh told Business Insider during an exclusive interview at the IGNITION: Transportation summit this week. "What we've been in so far has been a test and learn journey."

The COVID-19 pandemic has only heightened the urgency of drone delivery — and highlighted its potential.

"The initial step for drones would be in this critical health care slash other industries that really require something urgently," Ganesh said. "As the technology becomes more mature and costs go down," he said, drones could be integrated into more routine purposes and deliveries.

UPS has launched two health care-related trials during the pandemic. One, at the Villages retirement community in Florida, delivers prescription medication to residents from a nearby CVS. The other, at the Wake Forest Baptist health system in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, offers fast shipping of time-sensitive medical supplies and PPE between the health system's central campus and its other locations.

A key challenge to taking drone deliveries mainstream is the complex approvals needed from the FAA, as well as methods to avoid nearby air traffic. That, coupled with the difficulties of navigating around tall and dense development, makes it likely that drone deliveries will start out in rural and suburban areas, Ganesh said.

One of the most interesting use cases the company has explored, Ganesh said, is a "driver assist" system, in which each time the driver makes a delivery stop in a rural location, they launch the drone from the top of their truck and have it make the next delivery on the route. It would effectively double the number of deliveries a driver can make in a given time.

While drone delivery in cities is still something UPS plans to develop, that will likely come later, Ganesh said.

"There's a lot of ideas" to solve the challenge of urban drone delivery, Ganesh said. "I'm sure that time will come," he added, "but it may not be the medium term."

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