Between its flashy buildings and Formula 1 races, Abu Dhabi may be known for its high-tech, high-rolling lifestyle. But the wealthy capital of the United Arab Emirates is getting a form of tech for good: medical drone delivery.
The Abu Dhabi Department of Health announced in 2021 plans to adopt advanced drones to distribute and transfer medical supplies within the healthcare sector. As part of the project — which is largely set to take off in 2022 — the government will partner with two private companies, SkyGo and Matternet, to build a drone delivery system helmed by 40 stations. Together, they’ll transport medical goods such as COVID-19 vaccines, blood, and lab samples medical supplies, medicine and blood units, vaccines and samples between laboratories, pharmacies and blood banks around the city of Abu Dhabi.
The government stakeholders in the project are the Department of Health and UAE’s General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA).
SkyGo is the first company to have a license in the UAE for BVLOS (Beyond Visual Line Of Sight) commercial drone delivery operations, bringing its in-depth knowledge of the Abu Dhabi healthcare landscape and expertise in logistics and distribution in the Gulf region to the project.
Meanwhile, California-based Matternet has long been a pioneer in drone delivery, including having conducted Beyond Visual Line Of Sight (BVLOS) commercially over cities since 2017. It’s scored major partnerships with UPS and Mercedes-Benz, among others. Earlier this summer, Matternet became the first drone company in the U.S. to start transporting the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine by drone.
SkyGo already has a license for BVLOS drone delivery in the UAE, which Matternet will use.
So far, SkyGo and Matternet have already completed phase one of testing, with demonstrations including transporting and delivering medical samples of a live patient PCR test from Zayed Sports City to one of the Emirate laboratories. The samples were transported with GDPS-compliant tech while the drone flew autonomously at an altitude of 300 feet above ground level. End-to-end chain of custody tracking was conducted via Matternet’s Terminal and Mission Control applications.
Phase two is now underway and is set to be complete by the end of 2021. The focus of phase two? Addressing aviation safety requirement and risk assessments.
Future plans include installing 40 ‘droneports’ in Abu Dhabi by the end of the first year of operation. That’s essentially because Matternet drones, unlike some other major delivery drones such as those from Google-sibling Wing need to land in order to complete the delivery. In contrast, Wing’s drones use a tether to slowly lower packages, and Zipline’s drones have their own release-type mechanism.
If successful, it could be a big step ahead in transforming both the healthcare and logistics (aka package delivery) industries, and how they use drones. Its backers are also hoping it’ll prove a positive environmental impact, saying they expect that the use of drones will yield environmental benefits including a reduction in CO2 emissions and reduced road traffic congestion.
This isn’t supposed to be a one-off test either. This project is designed for longevity to scale — and to eventually operate at all hours of the day. After all, emergencies happen outside the 9-to-5 work day. This drone delivery and transfer system is designed for around the clock service, form part of a broader emergency response network available at healthcare facilities in Abu Dhabi.
SkyGo and Matternet say they plan to complete testing by the end of year and begin commercial operations in Q1 2022.
Abu Dhabi has long had its hands in drones. In fact, yours truly spoke at the Drones Middle East conference in Abu Dhabi back in 2016. The country of UAE has long been working to remove burdens around flying drones. As of late, Abu Dhabi and the broader country of the UAE is further positioning itself as a tech leader with its “UAE Projects of the 50” campaign and it’s so-called “UAE Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) Strategy.”