Swiss Post uses autonomous drones to deliver lab samples

Posted Apr 1, 2017 by Ken Hanly
The Swiss Post is using autonomous drones to deliver laboratory samples between two hospitals in the city of Lugano with a population of about 150,000 near the Italian border.
A drone carrying a mail box of Swiss Post flies over the airport of Bellechasse  on July 7  2015
A drone carrying a mail box of Swiss Post flies over the airport of Bellechasse, on July 7, 2015
Fabrice Coffrini, AFP
The Swiss postal service is partnering with Matternet a California-based drone company. Matternet supplies the drones as well as the flight system. The drones have been flying since the middle of March. The drones are described as follows: The drones are made by American company Matternet, have a load capacity of up to two kilograms, a range of 20 kilometers, and a top speed of 36 kilometers per hour (10 meters a second). Infrared sensors are used to guide their takeoff and landings, and in the event of an emergency, the drones have a built-in parachute to ensure they fall safely to the ground.
During the past two weeks, the drones have already completed around 70 successful flights. The drones fly completely on their own with no one piloting them. However, Matternet says that it does have personnel monitoring all the flights from a remote location just in case something should go wrong. The drones are small only about 31 inches in diameter. The program has been approved by the Swiss aviation authority for the deliveries to be run in a test phase. By 2018 it is planned to use the drones regularly to ferry supplies between the two hospitals.
There are landing and takeoff pads outside each hospital. Packages are released once the drone touches the ground. The hospital staff load up the drones and then send them off by pressing a button on an app they have been taught to use. The Swiss program puts it ahead of the US where flying a drone beyond the line of sight requires getting a special waiver from the Federal Aviation Authority. Very few waivers have been issued so far. There is a need to establish rules for drones that fly beyond the line of sight.
The use of drones to transport medical samples is not new with the Silicon Valley firm Zipline using fixed-wing craft to carry out such deliveries in Rwanda, but the Swiss tests are the first ever development of autonomous drones in an urban environment according to Swiss Post. Operating drones in towns and cities is challenging because of the risk of civilian injury but Swiss Post claims it is working closely with Swiss aviation regulators.
The drones are particularly suited for delivering the samples since the packages are light and their delivery is often time-sensitive. There is also avoidance of urban traffic. Swiss Post said: “The regular use of drones between the two hospitals will become an everyday occurrence. Trained hospital staff will be able to load the drone independently with a safety box (in which the lab samples are packaged) and launch the drone with a smartphone application. The drone will then fly autonomously along the predefined route to its destination, where the box will be received by another member of staff.”
Flights are to continue until April 4th when an initial evaluation will take place. Further testing is planned during the summer. The drones have duplicates of the autopilot and other important sensors built in as a safety feature. The landing pad emits an infrared signal that can aid the drone make a pinpoint landing. Swiss Post has played a pioneering role in the commercial application of autonomous drone logistics.