From The Editor | July 25, 2019

Are Drones Feasible In Biopharma?

Matt Pillar

By Matthew Pillar, Editor, BioProcess Online


Back in March, UPS and autonomous drone technology provider Matternet announced they had collectively begun delivering medical samples via unmanned drones at WakeMed’s flagship hospital and campus near Raleigh, N.C.

The project, replete with oversight from the FAA and NCDOT (North Carolina Department of Transportation), was a long time in the making. Understandably so. Deploying unmanned devices to haul payloads of potentially septic human blood and urine across a busy hospital and research campus at low altitudes isn’t something anyone should be taking lightly.

The WakeMed application marks the first time the FAA has sanctioned the use of drones for what it classifies “routine revenue flights involving the transport of a product under a contractual delivery agreement.” It’s a product of the Administration’s Unmanned Aircraft System Integration Pilot Program (IPP), a three-year program to test practical applications of drones by partnering local governments with private sector companies to learn more about how this emerging technology can be safely and usefully integrated into day-to-day activities.

It’s no less than a watershed moment for drone delivery initiatives, made all the more intriguing given the drones’ potentially hazardous payload.

While my mind has been heavy for some time wondering how Domino’s will keep a pizza hot and intact at 200 feet and 40+ miles per hour, the news out of Raleigh had me pondering something else; the applicability of drone delivery in the development, manufacturing, and last-mile logistics of pharmaceuticals. After all, if the FAA can greenlight the flight of blood and urine samples from sick patients a couple-hundred feet over publicly-populated places, why not zip cells, APIs, trial formulations, and finished products high above privately-held and less-populated development and manufacturing campuses?

In terms of business practicality, the WakeMed installation is easily justified by the efficiencies realized in a high-volume—and high sense of urgency—environment. Historically, the majority of medical samples and specimens collected at WakeMed have been delivered by courier car. The cost of the drone in use there now—Matternet’s M2 quadcopter—is so far a well-held secret. Earlier and less-functional drones built by Matternet were stickered north of $5,000. We can therefore presume that while the M2 isn’t much cheaper than an economy car, it’s considerably less costly to maintain and operate. More importantly, it makes on-demand and same-day delivery a reality by avoiding roadway delays, facilitating predictable delivery and more accurate labor and equipment resource scheduling, and ultimately, improving the patient experience. The quadcopter travels up to 40 MPH and can cover 12.5 miles per charge, flying in airspace between 50 and 100 meters (about 164 and 328 feet). It can carry a payload up to five pounds. That’s perfect for time-sensitive lab work.

Drone-Enabled Pharma Manufacturing?

Now, back to the drone’s potential applicability in pharma. It’s worth noting that the NCDOT’s interest in the project is rooted in pharma logistics, albeit in the context of last-mile delivery of drugs and medical devices to North Carolina residents. Further upstream, could the efficient movement of drug formulation consumables across sprawling campuses benefit pharma companies at various points in the development and manufacturing processes?

Maybe, but their use case is highly dependent on a host specific considerations.

  • Obstacles to ground travel. Spatial and physical barriers between buildings in pharmaceutical manufacturing complexes are common. We often see laboratory, small-scale development, and manufacturing operations separated by many meters to even miles on a single campus and/or adjacent facilities spread across a town. As was the case at WakeMed with its samples, moving consumables around and among pharmaceutical manufacturing campuses is mainly the work of automobiles. Whether drones are a plausible alternative depends on the energy efficiency gains realized and the value the organization places on speed and scheduling control, both of which are gained in predictable, closed-loop logistics schemas.
  • Delivery volume. The quadcopter’s five-pound payload equates to a little more than two kilograms. While two kilograms of cell lines, biomolecules, or APIs can go a long way at developmental or even bench-scale stages, it’s a deal breaker at scale. At present, there are higher-capacity unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) on the market capable of carrying 40-plus pounds. Those built to handle any more weight than that are largely limited to military applications.
  • Security. At WakeMed, a trained medical professional loads secure drone containers with medical samples or specimens before a remote pilot-in-command monitors the drone’s journey along a predetermined flight path aided by a software application. The drone completes each delivery on a fixed landing pad at WakeMed’s main hospital and central pathology lab. It’s a highly controlled environment, less the risks inherent during flight. Those risks are exacerbated with high-cost and/or high-potency substances that could result in great financial loss and physical harm if lost or tampered with.
  • Temperature sensitivity. Healthcare logistics innovators addressed temperature regulation last year. In partnership with Softbox and AT&T, pharma company MSD used AT&T’s LTE-connected drone to transport Softbox’s thermal packaging system Skypod in 2018. After demonstrating that temperature-sensitive medicines could be transported using drones in disaster and emergency situations, the companies got some real-world experience under their collective belt in August of that year. On the heels of Hurricane Maria, the collective delivered life-saving medicines and vaccines to Puerto Rican health officials via drone to serve residents in need when portions of the islands were largely inaccessible by other means.

The new WakeMed project is itself not without precedent. Matternet had been running a similar pilot in Switzerland for nearly a year and a half prior to the WakeMed install. CEO Andreas Raptopoulos says that pilot had facilitated more than 3,000 flights before the U.S. project even began.

UPS has made no bones about the opportunity it sees in the logistics of healthcare and life sciences, both of which it considers strategic growth imperatives. The company’s progressive investment in the WakeMed project puts its money where its mouth is, and I suspect we’ll see plenty of last mile application stories in the near future. Meanwhile, the drone’s feasibility in pharmaceutical manufacturing is, at present, both intriguing and suspect.