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Switzerland’s National Postal Service Has High Hopes for Drones

Mar 31, 2017

Drones could one day routinely deliver medical supplies and lab samples between hospitals in Switzerland.

The country’s national postal service said Friday that after it concludes a series of test drone deliveries this year, it hopes for the flying robots to regularly ship medical goods for two major hospitals by 2018.

The Swiss Post and California-based drone company Matternet have conducted about 70 drone deliveries between two hospitals since mid-March. Switzerland’s Federal Office for Civil Aviation approved the test deliveries and has been overseeing the drone project for safety and legal reasons.

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The Swiss Post plans to continue the drone delivery trials until April 4, which will be followed by an evaluation of the project. The postal service said it plans for another month of testing this summer.

“As soon as the drone meets all of the strict requirements regarding safety, practicality and reliability, the regular use of drones between the two hospitals will become an everyday occurrence,” said the postal service.

For the drone deliveries, hospital staff load their lab samples into a box affixed to the drone, and then send the drone to the other hospital location with the help of a mobile app. The Swiss Post did not say how far away are the hospitals from each other, but it’s likely to be less than 12 miles since that’s how far the Matternet drones used in the tests can travel without being charged.

The two hospitals also have landing pads that use infrared technology to help guide the drones to their correct locations. If something were to go wrong with the drone during its flight, a parachute would deploy from the drone so it could safely fall to the ground.

What makes this proposed drone delivery system interesting is that it involves flying the drones in an urban area, as opposed to rural locations where many drone delivery tests have taken place.

Compared to the U.S., Switzerland’s regulatory environment appears to be more welcoming to these kinds of drone testing and wide-scale delivery projects. Although the Federal Aviation Administration debuted in August rules for commercial drone use, companies still need to seek approval for drone projects that require drones to fly beyond the line of site of operators and above the heads of pedestrians, which could impede routine drone deliveries.

Amazon (amzn), Google parent Alphabet(goog), and UPS (ups) are all testing drone deliveries in the U.S. However, several drone analysts and technologists say that current regulatory conditions, technological limitations, and lack of financial viability could prevent the projects from taking off in the U.S. for several years.

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