A Silicon Valley startup will begin offering drone deliveries of blood and other medical samples to Swiss hospitals by the end of 2017.
Where most near-future drone plans include one-hour Amazon deliveries, Matternet is developing an autonomous delivery station for hospitals, from which drones take off and land.
The drones would replace expensive courier services currently used by hospitals to transport small packages and patient samples, potentially saving money and shortening delivery times.
Installed in a car park or on the roof, the Matternet Station can receive shoe box-sized packages, loaded by staff then automatically attached to a drone with a mechanical arm.
The drone then departs from the station and heads to its destination, utilising a little-used portion of Swiss airspace and at an altitude only used by emergency helicopters. The drones will constantly broadcast their location to other air traffic and can carry payloads of 2kg for up to 12 miles.
On landing, the drones communicate with the base station that controls the landing procedure or orchestrates a holding pattern if multiple drones come in to land at once. The startup has secured a special license from the Swiss federal Office for Civil Aviation, allowing it to operate the drones on a trial basis in the city of Lugano on the Italian border. It hopes to roll out to other Swiss cities before the end of 2017, then extend to Europe, the US and Japan.
California-based Matternet said: "The Matternet Station occupies a small footprint of approximately two square meters and can be installed at ground or rooftop locations. It is equipped with technology that guides the Matternet M2 Drone to precision landing on the station's platform. After landing, the station locks the drone in place and automatically swaps its battery and payload.
"A user is able to send a package to another location by simply scanning it into the Matternet Station, or receive a package from the station by scanning a QR code. Each station comes with its own automated aerial deconfliction system that manages drone traffic over the station."
Matternet chief executive Andreas Raptopoulos said: "For healthcare systems, an integrated Matternet network means that medical items can be delivered to any hospital facility within 30 minutes. This level of speed and predictability creates substantial opportunities for improved quality of care and operational savings."