It’s no secret that access by air to accident scenes is crucial to getting quick, medical support to people, especially in hard-to-reach areas, such as places that have been impacted by natural disasters and are impossible to reach by road, or people who are hurt in remote areas such as the wilderness. Helicopters have long been a way to provide medical support to people in need — and now one leader in the air medical service space, Air Methods — is adopting drones. Enter Spright: a new fleet of medical delivery drones built by Wingcopter.
Air Methods announced this month that it would be launching a fleet of drones collectively called Spright with the intent “to help improve healthcare access and minimize supply challenges” by delivering crucial medical equipment, including blood products, medicines, diagnostics or small medical devices.
That fleet would be deployed theoretically across the nation as a drone-based, healthcare-specific delivery network. Conveniently, Air Methods already has existing infrastructure that’s critical to making the rollout easy and seamless. Because of Air Methods’ foothold with manned helicopters, the company already has more than 300 bases that serves hundreds of hospitals across 48 states — most of which are in predominantly in rural areas.
“We see Spright serving a vastly underserved market and playing a huge role in a future full of better outcomes for everyone,” said JaeLynn Williams, CEO of Air Methods.
And Air Methods already is experienced in both aviation and medical fields. In fact, it’s the nation’s largest and most experienced FAA Part 135 Operator and has more than 450 helicopters and fixed wing aircraft in its fleet. Having been around for about 40 years, the company serves about 100,000 people annually as a preferred partner at many hospitals nationwide.
The Spright network uses the Wingcopter 198, which is the flagship delivery drone built by Wingcopter, a German-based drone maker that primarily focuses on building delivery drones. The Wingcopter 198 has a unique designed as an electric powered vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) drone, meaning it has the benefits of a helicopter design (it can take off and land in small spaces), but also has the benefits of an airplane design (it can fly long distances).
Another unique design feature is the company’s patented tilt-rotor technology which theoretically makes long-range flight even more efficient. Wingcopter’s deliveries are lowered through a winch mechanism, thus requiring no landing infrastructure. The Wingcopter 198 drone has a range of up to 68 miles (110 kilometers), a maximum speed of 90 mph (145 kilometers per hour) and can carry a payload of up to 13 lbs (6 kg).
The Spright flights will begin as a pilot project done as a proof-of-concept in partnership with Hutchinson Regional Medical System, in Hutchinson, Kansas.
The market for medical drone deliveries
Currently, one of the largest players in the drones-for-medical-deliveries space is Zipline, which was named the the top drone delivery company of 2020 by by Drone Industry Insights thanks to its valuation of over $1 billion, $190 million in new financing in 2019 and a total over 50,000 commercial deliveries. Zipline largely begna by medical supplies in Africa, starting in Rwanda in 2016, and expanding to other countries including Tanzania, and Ghana, before moving to Asia with support in India and the Philippines. But since coronavirus, Zipline operations in the U.S. have taken off as the company deliveries of PPE and other COVID-19 medical supplies to hospitals in North Carolina.
Also in 2020, drone delivery company DroneUp conducted a project in partnership with Walmart and medical testing company Quest Diagnostics, to deliver COVID-19 at-home self-collection kits to single-family homes in Las Vegas.