DAVID GREENE, HOST:
All right. So drones are not quite ready to compete with Santa Claus delivering toys to your home for Christmas morning, but that dream may be closer to reality. Walgreens is now testing on-demand drone delivery in Virginia. And UPS just won approval to operate a drone delivery airline.
Here's NPR's David Schaper
(SOUNDBITE OF HELICOPTER WHIRRING)
DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Sounding like a huge swarm of angry bees or maybe a hedge trimmer on steroids, a small quadcopter lifts up in front of the hospital building on the WakeMed campus in Raleigh, N.C.
(SOUNDBITE OF HELICOPTER WHIRRING)
SCHAPER: Attached underneath is a metal box smaller than a shoe box with vials of blood samples heading to the lab. Dr. Stuart Ginn says by ground carrier, this used to take close to an hour. But now, with the drone...
STUART GINN: We've seen that dropped to about 10 minutes, and that's really door to door. The actual flight time one-way on the route is about three minutes.
SCHAPER: Now, WakeMed's partner in this endeavor, UPS, has federal approval to expand operations, so it can fly multiple aircraft in multiple locations over longer distances. Dr. Ginn says that will allow WakeMed to speed delivery of samples and supplies between its other health care facilities across the region.
GINN: We anticipate being able to connect those hospitals together and those health-plexes back to the hospitals.
SCHAPER: But its longer range drones that could eventually be a game-changer in places where doctors and patients, medications and supplies may be miles apart.
Bala Ganesh is vice president of the advanced technology group at UPS.
BALA GANESH: What we're doing is we're opening up a third dimension that wasn't there. We were thinking in 2D. And now, we're starting to think in the third dimension.
SCHAPER: Ganesh says GPS and other technologies allow the unmanned drones to fly to precise locations. And collision avoidance technology will help prevent them from crashing into obstacles, like trees, power lines, buildings or, for that matter, even other drones.
GANESH: We are moving forward into a future that does not exist today. So it's an amazing, amazing thing.
SCHAPER: Drones are already being used commercially for photography and film, for inspecting crops, buildings, bridges and railroads. And first responders use them in search and rescue operations and to survey damage from disasters.
But those drones operate on short leashes. The new federal Part 135 certification will eventually allow UPS to make drone deliveries beyond the operator's line of sight, at night and over populated areas. And now the company is expanding drone delivery to the University of Utah's medical campus, among others, and partnering with CVS to home deliver prescriptions by drone.
Jacob Reed heads the unmanned aircraft systems program at Lewis University outside of Chicago.
JACOB REED: Everybody understands the value in this, right? And everybody understands the demands that consumers have with wanting their goods and wanting their goods faster.
SCHAPER: And drones could do that much more easily than delivery vans and trucks. But Reed says there are still obstacles.
REED: The biggest thing is safety. It's not only the safety of everybody on the ground that the aircraft may be flying over, but it's the safety of other manned aircraft that are in the skies.
SCHAPER: There are also concerns about privacy and drone noise and security concerns over whether they could be hacked and steered off course. And then there's just plain old human curiosity. Reed imagines a drone delivering to his house on a warm summer day.
REED: And this big rotor craft comes and lands maybe on my driveway or my doorstep to drop off a package. Well, now, there's kids in the area that are off to school. And they're - come by to check out this cool aircraft that just delivered something.
SCHAPER: Will the drone know kids are close by and could be injured by restarting the rotors? The FAA and drone developers are working to address those and other concerns. And it is becoming more likely that drone deliveries to our homes will soon take off.
David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.
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