UPDATE: Drones to fly COVID-19 relief in parts of North Carolina

Drones will deliver medical supplies and food in North Carolina communities in May under a public-private partnership announced by the state’s aviation officials as a response to the COVID-19 crisis.

A virtual public meeting was held Friday to discuss the initiatives  It can be accessed online

During the meeting, officials conducted an instant online poll of those who attended and found that 35% of those who answered were concerned about drone operations flying over people.

"We understand the concerns about drone safety and personal data gathering," said James Pearce, communications officer for the state's aviation division in an email to FierceElectronics. He said officials are committed to finding ways to help people "and never harm them."

During the two-hour presentation, drone operators said they have flown hundreds of flights, sometimes in foreign countries, with solid safety records and would be rolling out safety information to North Carolina residents in the areas affected.

Pearce said that none of the drone operations, including for the COVID-19 operations will include a personal data gathering component.  "These are simply delivery operations," Pearce said.  "The only data of any kind that will be gathered is technical information about the flight performance of the various aircraft."

The drone flights will launch in mid -May under the coordination of the aviation division in the state’s department of transportation. The experience could provide lessons to other drone relief efforts nationwide, officials said..

In the Charlotte area of the state, Novant Health and drone delivery provider Zipline have proposed deliver personal protective equipment and other medical equipment to Novant Health’s medical campuses.

In Winston-Salem, UPS Flight Forward and drone service provider Matternet have proposed using drones to take healthcare gear, medicine and personal protective equipment to medical providers.  UPS Flight Forward already has ongoing drone delivery service at WakeMed in Raleigh, according to the state.

UPS Flight Forward described the WakeMed drone service in a March online blog, saying the Matternet M2 drones would fly at up to 43 mph to carry medical samples from a doctor’s office to a central lab to reduce transit time to less than five minutes.

In Holly Springs, drone delivery service Flytrex has proposed delivery of food from various restaurants in a shopping center to nearby neighborhoods.

Funding for the individual drone missions is being provided by the private partners.North Carolina has been a part of the U.S. pilot program for unmanned aircraft systems since 2018.

Rachel Carlstrom, a manager in the drone pilot program for the Federal Aviation Administration said there have been 9,400 drone flights lasting 3,400 flight hours in nine locations nationally.  She called the program "a great success story."

During the pilot program, drones have been deployed for package delivery, inspection of power lines and pipelines and in emergency response.  In Chula Vista, California, drones have been used to reach homeless individuals to inform them about social distancing with COVID-19, Carlstron said. State Farm insurance teams have also used drones in North Carolina to assess storm damage.

Basil Yap, manager of the state's drone program, said drones have tremendous potential. "Lives can be saved and improved," he said.  State crews have already used drones to conduct bridge inspections and to monitor construction projects.  Drones were used to capture data from damage caused by Hurricanes Florence and Dorian in August and September of 2018 and 2019.  Lessons learned from the data will be applied to future emergency management, he said.

Yap said the state is developing an unmanned drone traffic management system that will prevent flights from conflicting with manned air traffic and from flying over schools, airports, hospitals or prisons.  "We also don't want all the drone flights over a disadvantaged neighborhood," he said.

State transportation officials also got to witness the first test flight in North Carolina in early 2020 of an unmanned EHang flying car that is being designed to carry two people, possibly for ambulance service, Yap said. "It was electric powered and much quieter than a helicopter," he added. "We can put people in large drones and fly them around and do it safely."

China-based EHang has been demonstrating versions of its flying taxi since early 2018. 



In a separate example of drone use during the pandemic, police in Westport, Connecticut, are testing drones from Draganfly that are equipped with sensors and computer vision systems to detect fever and coughing in crowds.

RELATED: Police in Westport test drones to detect COVID-19 in crowds