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Abu Dhabi aims for a paradigm shift in drone delivery

Abu Dhabi’s drone network could become the world’s first drone platform that serves a wide variety of use cases for different industries across an entire city

In September 2021, Abu Dhabi Department of Health announced that it will create a drone delivery system to be used to deliver medical supplies – medicine, blood units, vaccines and samples – between laboratories, pharmacies and blood banks across the city.

The first version of the system will be based on a network of 40 different stations that drones fly in and out of. Over time, the number of stations is expected to grow. 

A stated strategy of the UAE with regards to new technology in general is to grow a local ecosystem of experts by encouraging partnerships between local and overseas companies from outside the region. The local companies obtain licenses more easily and they are better at developing sales and partnerships locally; the companies from outside the UAE usually come from large markets where technology providers have already gained considerable momentum.

The hope is that, over time, the local companies will develop their own expertise and gather their own momentum through the partnerships. 

The Abu Dhabi drone project, which begins this year, will follow the strategy of partnerships between local companies and outside providers. Skygo, a local logistics company with the first license in the UAE for “beyond visual line of site” (BVLOS) commercial drone delivery operations, will work with US-based Matternet to build and operate the network. Matternet designs, manufactures and operates drones to deliver healthcare products, principally. The company focuses specifically on urban last mile logistics.

“The company name is simply the combination of the words ‘matter’ and ‘net’,” explains Jon Michaeli, global head of sales and business development at Matternet. “We distribute matter – or physical goods – via a network. Think of the internet. The internet exchanges data in packets from node to node. You pay a subscription fee, and you plug into the internet to exchange information around the world.”

Matternet works in a similar fashion. The company puts stations (or drone ports) in different locations around a city. The more nodes in the network there are, the greater the route possibilities. Any station can send and receive a delivery to any other.  

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After a drone flies from one location to another, the battery is swapped for one that has been pre-charged at the destination. A new payload is loaded onto the aircraft, which then continues wherever it needs to go within its 20 km range.  

“Matternet’s service is configurable to the specific needs of a customer,” said Michaeli. “This is one of the real benefits of a network model. A route is possible between any two nodes, and the number of route possibilities grows exponentially with the size of the network.”

Of course, from an efficiency and cost perspective, the goal is to have the minimum number of aircraft delivering the maximum number of payloads – and aircraft should go full as often as possible.  

“A customer typically knows their use case, because they already have some kind of ground-based delivery system,” said Michaeli. “Then it’s really a matter of doing it faster and more reliably. A drone’s path approximates ‘as the crow flies’, and we can deliver in the same amount of time every time, as opposed to ground carriers, which have to contend with traffic congestion and accidents.

“Sometimes products degrade quickly and need to be delivered urgently,” he said. “There are cases where products are fragile and less stable, requiring precise temperature control (also known as cold chain). And sometimes inventory levels are low or volatile, where just-in-time drone delivery can come in handy.

“And even for regularly scheduled deliveries, drones can deliver in smaller batches, more frequently. This can help a lab, for example, to operate more efficiently and provide customers with shorter turnaround times, a key metric for the lab business with an impact on patient outcomes.”

Abu Dhabi hopes to raise drone delivery to a new level 

Matternet has been operating in Switzerland, in partnership with Swiss Post, for several years, delivering for hospitals, both in Lugano and Zurich. Their drones have been flying BVLOS flights for five years in Switzerland. 

In the US, the company works with UPS Flight Forward to make deliveries for Wake Forest Baptist Hospital and Wake Med in North Carolina – and for CVS Pharmacy in Florida. In Florida, they provide prescription deliveries to the nation’s largest retirement community, The Villages, with more than 100,000 residents. They started the delivery of prescription medications during peak Covid to enable residents, who are 65 years and older (and therefore, a higher-risk population) to receive their prescriptions at their homes, as opposed to going to the pharmacy and risking contagion.

“A big difference with the project in Abu Dhabi is scale and speed of implementation,” said Michaeli. “We’e talking about a city-wide network – not just a specific customer but connecting many types of healthcare customers. On top of that, the network will serve a multitude of use cases.

“This is what Matternet has aspired to do,” he said. “Although there’s value in building a solution for an individual customer, our mission is to create these larger drone networks at city scale where you’re providing even greater utility across a healthcare ecosystem.”

Michaeli hopes the project will get the industry through an inflection point to demonstrate what drone technology is capable of. The project is expected to take drone delivery to a new level of adoption, which will hopefully show the rest of the world the potential scale and impact of drone delivery.

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