The Flirtey Eagle Delivering A Medical Package 5e5fcf8e81378 5e6008da0c6d4

Drone Delivery is Critical to Pandemic Management

March 6, 2020
When we think about what reasonable measures can be taken to slow the spread of COVID-19, we believe that autonomous drone delivery should be at the top of the list.

As you may have seen in the news, the outbreak of COVID-19 (“Coronavirus”) is beginning to spread. There are several reasons why the Coronavirus may pose a very serious threat.

The Coronavirus is highly contagious. The R0 (pronounced “R naught”) is a measure of how contagious a virus is. The seasonal flu has an R0 of about 1.3. The 1918 influenza pandemic had an R0 of about 2. Medical experts estimate the Coronavirus has an R0 of more than 2 (and perhaps significantly higher). Also, the Coronavirus may be able to be spread by people who do not have symptoms yet (the seasonal flu can be spread about 1 day before people have symptoms, and medical experts estimate the Coronavirus may be spread for a significantly longer period of time before people show symptoms). This may be further exacerbated by preliminary reports that the Coronavirus may be aerosolized; may spread through the mouth, nose, and eyes; may last on surfaces for up to 9 days; and that fully recovered patients may be able to become reinfected

Coronavirus could kill a lot of people. Medical experts currently estimate the Coronavirus has a fatality rate by age of 0% for 0-9 years old, 0.2% for 10-39 years old, 0.4% for 40-49 years old, 1.3% for 50-59 years old, 3.6% for 60-69 years old, 8.0% for 70-79 years old, and 14.8% for 80+ years old. When we analyze this data based on the current demographics of the U.S., which has an aging baby boomer population; assuming up to 20% of the U.S. population gets the Coronavirus (similar to the percentage of the population that gets the seasonal flu), this may kill approximately 1,211,795 people in the U.S.

The risks posed by Coronavirus may be further exacerbated by the following factors:

  1. A lack of N95 respirators for healthcare workers may lead to infection of medical personnel, who may, in turn, infect more patients. The current government stockpile of 43 million masks represents approximately 2 masks per healthcare worker in the U.S., which implies that the current stockpile of masks would last two business days at full deployment, prior to reuse.
  2. The high serious complication rate for Coronavirus patients may overwhelm hospitals, which would push up the fatality rate because of a lack of intensive care available for the sickest patients. If up to 20% of the U.S. population gets the Coronavirus and 1.7% require hospitalization (similar to the seasonal flu), and up to 32% of hospitalized Coronavirus patients with pneumonia require intensive care for respiratory support, this may lead to a shortage in the U.S. of more than 300,000 ICU beds. This hits close to home at Flirtey, because we worked with the late John Foggia, who before leading our engineering team, led NASA Langley Research Center’s program to fly drones over people, and fully integrate drones into the National Airspace System. Last year, John got the seasonal flu, which led to pneumonia, and to his hospitalization in an intensive care unit in Reno, NV. At the time, we tried to arrange for John to get airlifted to Stanford University (an investor in Flirtey), but Stanford University did not have an ICU bed available, and John, unfortunately, passed away.
  3. The risk of Coronavirus mutating into a more fatal virus could significantly increase the fatality rate. The 1918 influenza pandemic traveled the world in three waves; the first wave began in March 1918, infection rates were high but death rates were relatively low, and it lasted about six months; then a second wave spread globally in late 1918 and a third wave spread globally in early 1919. The second and third waves had much higher fatality rates than the first wave, and in total killed more than 50 million people globally.

 Drone Delivery Makes History

Five years ago, Flirtey conducted the first drone delivery in history approved by the U.S. government, in collaboration with NASA, delivering medical supplies to doctors at the largest free healthcare clinic in the United States. This historic milestone pioneered the drone delivery industry and laid the foundation for the use of drone delivery technology to benefit society. Then, we conducted the first ship to shore drone delivery, in collaboration with pathologists from Johns Hopkins and with representatives from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance and the American Red Cross, delivering blood samples from land to a medical testing facility on the ship and delivering first aid supplies (including medicine and water purification tablets) back to shore; demonstrating, yet again, how drone delivery technology can provide critical support in disaster scenarios.

If water, food and basic medical necessities had been delivered by drone following Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy, imagine how many lives could have been saved. We also conducted the first autonomous drone delivery to a home; the first commercial drone delivery in the U.S. (delivering over the counter medicine, food and water from a 7-Eleven store to customer homes); we announced the first AED drone delivery service in the U.S. in partnership with leading ambulance service REMSA (which when implemented at scale has the opportunity to save over 150,000 lives per year nationally, and is still pending our much desired regulatory approval, because regulations do not currently permit us to use drones to deliver the same AEDs that are carried on airplanes, or to fly over people, or beyond visual line of sight); and Flirtey was selected in the highly-competitive UAS Integration Pilot Program to enable us to work hand in hand with Federal, State, Local and Tribal governments to pursue accelerated regulatory approvals for drone delivery.

A Critical Tool

It would stand to reason that if we can’t contain the flu, we may not be able to contain the Coronavirus (which may be significantly more contagious than the flu). If containment is not an option, and pandemic may be an inevitability, then the policy objectives may be (1) take reasonable measures to slow spread of Coronavirus to buy enough time to create a vaccine, if possible (such as temporarily closing schools and universities, temporarily pausing outside visits to aged care facilities, temporarily closing local medical offices and centralizing medical visits at facilities that have high levels of protection for medical personnel and visiting patients, postponing large public gatherings and conducting localized quarantines); (2) reduce fear; (3) keep the economy strong; and (4) avoid overwhelming hospitals (and if spread of Coronavirus continues and the fatality rate stays low, it may make sense to start treating Coronavirus patients who are free of underlying medical conditions like flu patients).

When there are known or likely pockets of infected people in high-risk locations, who are quarantined or encouraged to stay home, it is a significant risk to healthcare workers and delivery drivers to deliver medical test kits, medicine, food and water to these people.

A much better solution would be to send medical test kits, medicine, food and water to high-risk populations. In the emergency response to the threat of a pandemic, there are laws on the books that could enable fast-tracking of drone delivery to protect public safety.

Moreover, in the U.S., on-demand delivery drivers who frequently pick up guests from airports and then pick up food from restaurants, are at high risk of spreading the Coronavirus to otherwise healthy people. The experience in China taught that even when people stopped going out to restaurants, having food delivered to their homes still caused the spread of infection (e.g. through Coronavirus on the shopping bags carried by contagious delivery drivers). A much better solution would be “no-contact delivery” of medical test kits, medicine, food and water to homes across America by autonomous drone delivery.

We believe that federal, state, local, and tribal governments now have an opportunity to establish inventories of autonomous drone delivery capabilities to respond to pandemics, for Coronavirus, as well as for future pandemics that may have significantly higher fatality rates.

In The American Crisis, Thomas Paine said, “THESE are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.” 

About the Author

Matthew Sweeny

Matthew Sweeny is the founder and CEO of Flirtey.

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