While there’s no coronavirus vaccine yet, pharmaceutical giant Merck wants to be ready for when the time comes. That’s all due to recent Merck drone delivery tests to study how drones can deliver cold chain medicines.
The drones, which are vertical take-off and landing drones being operated by Volansi, are flying from a Merck manufacturing facility in Wilson, North Carolina to the Vidant Healthplex-Wilson health clinic.
The Merck drone delivery project is currently in the first of what’s set to be three phases. And in those initial flights, Merck claims their project resulted in the first drone delivery of temperature-controlled medicines within the U.S.
The drones flying the cold chain medicines are Volansi’s VOLY C10, an all-electric drone capable of carrying 10-pounds of cargo to locations up to 50 miles away. Among the drone’s features are a “soft touch” automated release system once the drone has landed at the delivery location, which allows the drone to deliver fragile cargo like vaccines. Other features on the drone include temperature trackers and shipping confirmation. Volansi’s drones are made in the U.S., with design, manufacturing, and testing done in northern California and Arizona.
Unlike Amazon drones delivering you a new pair of running shorts to your backyard, drones delivering vaccines typically have an added challenge: temperature control. Vaccines typically need to be stored at a specific temperature to remain effective. And of those many vaccines need to remain in cold temperatures, which is theoretically easier in trucks that can transport literal refrigerators, vs. drones.
Some vaccines are a little less tight in their temperature requirements. For example, AstraZeneca’s 2019 flu vaccine may be taken out of the refrigerator for up to 12 hours before being used, as long as it stays below 77°F in that 12-hour period.
But some vaccines have strict temperature requirements, including a possible coronavirus vaccine. A coronavirus vaccine created by Pfizer in partnership with BioNTech has to be stored at -94° F, and will last for only 24 hours at refrigerated temps between 35.6° and 46.4°.
Merck hasn’t said specifically what vaccines it plans to deliver via drone, but the company is participating in its own COVID-19 vaccine research through a buyout of the biotech Themis and a partnership with nonprofit research group IAVI.
As part of phases two and three of its refrigerated drone delivery research, Volansi said it will seek Federal Aviation Administration approval to add additional delivery locations, as well as enabling a flexible, on-demand, and responsive supply of medicines.
“Merck is very supportive of collaborations using new technologies to explore how one day we could help better serve the healthcare community,” said Craig Kennedy, Senior Vice President, Global Supply Chain Management, Merck. “This pilot helps us explore new innovative delivery options that would complement our existing supply chain capabilities.”
Merck has previously participated in drone delivery tests with the German government, as well as in collaboration with Volansi in a project delivering temperature-sensitive medicines in the Bahamas and Puerto Rico after the devastation of hurricanes Maria and Florence.
This latest cold chain drone delivery project is one component of the FAA’s Unmanned Aircraft System Integration Pilot Program with the North Carolina Department of Transportation. For months, Volansi has already been working with the UAS IPP in North Carolina to conduct what it calls “middle-mile deliveries.”
North Carolina has been a big player in the drone industry ever since 2018, when the Federal Aviation Administration selected the NC Department of Transportation as one of 10 participants in its Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Pilot Program.
The eastern part of North Carolina, where the Merck drone delivery trials are being tested, also poses an interesting place to fly drones, as the area is a primarily rural environment with 1.4 million people spread across 29 countries.