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San Diego Company Looks To Use Drones To Deliver Medication

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Speaker 1: 00:00 From an experimental brain treatment to experimenting with how to deliver prescription drugs faster and cheaper. A San Diego based company is working to drop prescriptions at your doorstep using drones. KPBS reporter Matt Hoffman got a first look.

Speaker 2: 00:17 Instead of going out to a pharmacy to get your medications, one company is using technology to bring it directly to you from the air.

Speaker 3: 00:26 We're at the implementation phase and we have a pilot program starting with sort pack, uh, our first of hopefully many uh, uh, pharmacies and delivering to some of their patients.

Speaker 2: 00:37 Founder Genesee is CEO of unmanned systems operations group, or you saw it, his experience in the air force flying medical evacuations. He knows how important it is to get people their medications fast, but it wasn't until a year ago when he took a class at MiraCosta college in Oceanside that the idea came to him.

Speaker 3: 00:58 During the course of that class, they showed us a video of a delivery service of RC planes, parachuting medication in Africa. I'm like, bingo, game over. We could do that.

Speaker 2: 01:11 So Jenna say partnered with two of his instructors and launched the company. The delivery system works like this. Using an app customer select a drop off location. A courier then takes their medication and secures it under the drone. Once that happens, the drone takes off all by itself

Speaker 4: 01:31 [inaudible]

Speaker 2: 01:31 and is automatically guided to the drop off location. Once at the destination, the package is dropped. Customers will then get a notification on their phone and can view video of the actual aerial delivery. The drones the company's using now can carry up to 12 pounds and fly all sorts of medication.

Speaker 3: 01:47 We can go from Tylenol, uh, to some medications actually ran up to $40,000. We have the ability and, uh, we have, um, uh, climate controlled, uh, containers to deliver, let's say, insulin, which has to be refrigerated. Take anti-venoms from one hospital, transport it to another hospital instead of transporting the patient. And it's faster, quicker, and cheaper.

Speaker 2: 02:09 The company has partnered with sort pack a full service pharmacy that serves customers across the country. We want to be at the forefront of, you know, the future. And you know, we see there's a, it really could help a lot of people out to Raymond Shirvani and is CEO of sort pack. We do have patients that, you know, they don't have loved ones that can go out there and pick up their medications. Right. They don't have uh, they live in areas where it's more of, you know, it's, it's really hard for cars to get out there soon. Sort pack customers will be receiving their deliveries from the drones part of a pilot program. We've asked them, how do you feel about there? We're amazed, you know, they were surprised too. How would a drone deliver my medication? You saw cofounder Mark. Costco says there are some limitations with the drone delivery system.

Speaker 2: 02:52 Bad weather or rain could cancel flights. There's definitely going to be conditions. I mean there's conditions with commercial aircraft which are pretty rugged, dumb fly through. Helicopters won't fly and there's a level that we won't be able to fly through to with whether it gets too, too bad. Costco says automated technology will be a key part of the company's success and that is where we start. And those words going to go and it'll play on the best route. Making sure that avoids a no fly zones, that the FAA is designated like schools, hospitals, stadiums, Jenna say says the main goal of the company is to save lives by getting medication to people faster and cheaper. He's driven everyday to reach this goal by the memory of his grandmother who passed away when he was just a kid.

Speaker 3: 03:30 The biggest impetus of, of creating this company is helping to save lives cause I wasn't able to save my grandmother and I wasn't old enough to, but I wasn't able to save her, but I wanted to save others. Uh, and uh, I think that's kind of, uh, one of the big things that I'll have really might've made to make this happen. So for this to be successful is everything to me. Um, you know, it's a big deal to me and I've got everything invested, everything invested in it, all of me

Speaker 2: 03:58 right now the company is continuing to put its software and drones through tests you saw, knows they have competition from larger companies in the drone delivery space. You saw will soon begin test flights, delivering medication just North of San Diego in Riverside County.

Speaker 1: 04:12 Joining me is KPBS reporter Matt Hoffman and Matt, welcome. Hey Morin, where is you SOG actually located? Is it headquartered here in San Diego or in Riverside?

Speaker 5: 04:23 I guess you could say. North County San Diego. I mean it was created by a MiraCosta, a student and two of his advisers in the drone and unmanned systems operations group. So headquartered in North County, San Diego,

Speaker 1: 04:35 even Amazon is having a hard time getting the okay for drone deliveries in the U S has the federal aviation administration approved these prescription drone deliveries?

Speaker 5: 04:45 In short? Not for USEG. Um, they interestingly enough, they just granted ups obviously a big delivery system. Uh, they're part one 35 license for sort of sort of the first, uh, drone airline. And that was just a few months ago. And this is the part one 35 license is what you saw will need, uh, if they want to actually expand this out of the testing phase and get into actual the actually commercial deliveries, they're going to need that part one 35, which they're working on right now. They basically have to send the FTC a ton of information about their flight times to prove among other things, uh, reliability and safety,

Speaker 1: 05:18 the drones operated. Is there an actual pilot flying them remotely?

Speaker 5: 05:23 Uh, no. So there's no actual pilot, uh, during some of the tests, uh, they have a pilot standing by. Um, but that's just for the testing phase cause they just want to make sure everything's safe. But, um, no, the automated software, uh, tells it where to go and where to land.

Speaker 1: 05:35 So pharmacies like CVS, uh, already offer same day home delivery of prescription drugs. Obviously not with drones, but with automobiles. Is this drone service really that much faster? Well,

Speaker 5: 05:48 okay. If you think about it, it can be used in a number of different ways. Now, obviously not everyone's going to be able to use, uh, this sort of drone delivery service. I mean, if you live like an apartment complex, a bunch of trees, the drones not going to be able to get down there and drop the package. Now, I don't think that they're just looking at using this for rural areas, which obviously it could help. I mean, they talk about, um, bringing medication from one hospital to another hospital. But imagine that, um, like, uh, the CEO has this saying where he says, you know, there's, there's a CVS and a Walgreens every five miles. Now if they set up one of these drone delivery systems every five miles, like at a CVS or Walgreens, um, every time an order is placed, somebody could just sort of load up, load the prescription packaging. The drone takes off. They say they can do about a mile a minute. And, uh, they say during urban gridlock, especially afternoon, morning drive, that package can get there really quickly. And if you've got them all over the place, you know, that'll just be a matter of just doling it out. And it should go quicker. They, they, they say and they say it'll not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions from cars being on the road, but they think it's faster and cheaper.

Speaker 1: 06:47 They may not have to deal with traffic gridlock, but don't drones face their own challenges?

Speaker 5: 06:53 Oh they absolutely do. And the founders acknowledged that they have this, uh, I wouldn't call it an issue cause they think that emerging technology is going to prevail here. But, um, just like with an airplane they say, and even a helicopter, uh, that drone won't be able to fly sometimes, especially when it's, you know, something pouring rain or hailing or very strong winds. Um, but they say, Hey look, even the FAA doesn't allow commercial aircraft to fly in some of those conditions. Uh, but they think things like waterproofing, uh, is really going to help them overcome some of those challenges. But there's also other things like battery life. I mean they think battery life, I think they said every year it gets like 10% better. So they're hoping for better, longer lasting batteries. Cause right now they have to swap out those batteries quite a bit.

Speaker 1: 07:31 Does the dropoff points selected by the customer have to meet some security conditions? I'm thinking that prescription drugs would often be the targets for thieves,

Speaker 5: 07:40 right? Especially, I mean the company says they can deliver stuff from Tylenol all the way up to medications that costs thousands of dollars. Um, interestingly enough, um, you don't have to have it delivered to your front door. You could make the drop off point in your backyard. Um, so that, that's an option. But, um, obviously since the stories come out, there's been, people have been raising this concern. Um, I know that when they select a drop off point, there's only like a few things that ask for in terms of, you know, is make sure there's no obstruction. Um, and their software says that they can drop it off within inches of where the customer makes a drop off points. So obviously there's going to be some limitations here.

Speaker 1: 08:11 You mentioned the pharmacy sort pack. Is that pharmacy going to be the only one that the drone operators use?

Speaker 5: 08:18 So th th th that's the first company that they've signed on with that as a partner and they're working with them up in Riverside in Hemet, uh, to start doing some of their first drone testing and sort pack is a, uh, full service pharmacy. It's, um, they don't have like a, well they have a physical headquarters in LA, but um, they don't have any like actual locations. They right now ship, uh, medications to people basically in packages. That's like, you know, Monday morning, Monday afternoon, Tuesday morning, Tuesday afternoon and so on. Um, so they're hoping to sign them with more pharmacies, but this is their first one. Uh, they've already got some customers that are interested and they're supposed to be starting testing pretty soon.

Speaker 1: 08:52 And is there any idea how long the company thinks the testing phase will last?

Speaker 5: 08:55 I think it's going to be a, at least a little bit. I mean, to get that part one 35, like I said, they have to prove that they're not only safe, but they're also reliable. And that's not only just the technology, but the drone parts itself. And, um, the CEO has said that he wants to keep it consistent and he wants it to be controlled. So he's saying starting with literally something like 10 customers, then going to 20 customers and then increasing that as they go along, not starting with some absurd number, like a thousand customers that would never work. They say, I've been speaking with KPBS reporter Matt Hoffman. Matt. Thank you. Thanks Maureen.

Unmanned Systems Operations Group was created by a MiraCosta College student and aims to use drones to deliver medication right to customers' front doors.

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Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon host KPBS Midday Edition, a daily radio news magazine keeping San Diego in the know on everything from politics to the arts.