UPS expands drone delivery to fight COVID-19

United Parcel Service (UPS) is dramatically expanding its drone delivery program with CVS Health Corporation (CVS) to protect seniors in the country’s largest retirement community from COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

UPS subsidiary Flight Forward will begin using drones in early May to deliver prescription medicines from a CVS pharmacy to more than 135,000 residents in Florida’s retirement community, The Villages.

“Our country has a large population of at risk people who have a large disproportionate amount of prescriptions they use,” UPS’s chief strategy and transformation officer Scott Price told Yahoo Finance. “They are fearful of leaving their homes. This is a mechanism by which we are able to provide them a service which allows them to stay safe during these times.”

CVS Health CEO John Roberts said it’s important that CVS customers have access to their prescriptions during the COVID-19 crisis. “In addition to our in-store pickup, free delivery services and drive through pickup, this drone delivery service provides an innovative method to reach some of our customers,” Roberts said in a prepared statement.

[See also: Desperately needed medical supplies to fight coronavirus are now heading to the US]

A UPS 747 is part of Project Airbridge to bring medical supplies to the United States to fight the spread of COVID-19

Expanding drone delivery

UPS and CVS began limited revenue generating drone delivery to individual homes last November with Flight Forward, which uses Matternet’s M2 drone system. At that time, UPS vice president Bala Ganesh told Yahoo Finance the company was working with the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to help formulate regulations for drone delivery.

“We contribute data back to the environment so they learn about what’s working and what’s not,” Ganesh said. That program will run through October of this year with the FAA expected to publish final flight regulations for drone delivery next year.

UPS’s Price says the new and expanded drone program will eventually deliver to individual homes inside The Villages before the FAA publishes those permanent regulations. “When you talk about an entire residential village, we are working with them saying if there are 100 homes, is that 100 (flight) filings or because the flight pattern can be structured can we look at an umbrella approach for a highly dense geography,” Scott said.

The drone delivery program in The Villages will, at first, deliver goods to a central location in the retirement community where a UPS ground vehicle will complete the run. UPS says the program could expand to other nearby CVS pharmacies.

“This is the jump to say how do you scale to the next level which is multi-residence communities,” Price said. He pointed out the COVID-19 crisis helped UPS determine its next move to scale up the Flight Forward program. “Because of the scale of 135,000 people, average age being 71, being a pool that is much bigger than any of the others we were looking at.”

UPS reports first quarter earnings Tuesday morning before markets open. It will be the last earnings report for CEO David Abney who is retiring June 1. Carol Tomé will become the global delivery company’s CEO. Tomé was once Home Depot’s CFO and joined the UPS board of directors in 2003. She currently chairs the UPS board’s Audit Committee.

Adam Shapiro is co-anchor of Yahoo Finance’s On the Move.

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