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UPS drone delivers medicine from CVS straight to customers' homes

The flights were early tests of what could become a new way of shipping everything from prescriptions to shampoo.

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UPS has been plowing resources into its drone deliveries business.

UPS

UPS has been speeding up its drone delivery work, announcing this year a new drone subsidiary and a growing list of new partnerships. Now, it's starting to make an early push to test out shipping stuff directly to consumers' homes.

Just two weeks after unveiling a new partnership to explore drone shipments, UPS and CVS announced Tuesday that they completed the first commercial medical prescription drone delivery in the US under a Federal Aviation Administration-approved program.

On Friday, a Matternet M2 drone finished two short, autonomous flights to customers' homes near a CVS store in Cary, North Carolina. The prescriptions were lowered to their destinations via a cable while the drone hovered about 20 feet above each address. UPS said one of the packages was delivered to a customer with limited mobility, which makes it difficult for them to make the trip to a nearby store. While UPS declined to say the length of the trips, it said they were both within the line of sight of a UPS drone operator who was on hand to take over the flights if needed. 

UPS spokesman Kyle Peterson said these flights weren't the start of an ongoing service but rather the beginning of an evaluation with CVS. This exploratory work includes the delivery of retail products like shampoo and paper towels.

While these CVS deliveries are a small first step, they point to a potentially promising future in which many more people will get their deliveries from e-commerce giants and local stores within minutes via drones, and businesses will be able to use drones to speed up their productivity.

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Still, plenty more safety and regulatory considerations are needed before any of this work could become mainstream. 

Using its new drone subsidiary, called UPS Flight Forward, the shipper is already providing drone deliveries on WakeMed's flagship hospital campus in Raleigh, North Carolina, sending lab samples back and forth between neighboring buildings and the central lab center. The company is already considering flights between hospitals to provide easier access to lifesaving medicines like anti-venoms.

The FAA has generally allowed drone flights that are within the line of sight of an operator, as was the case with these recent CVS flights, though UPS and its competitors are working toward developing drones that can be used without that requirement so they can fly around without needing an army of employees blanketing every neighborhood.

Last month, the FAA granted UPS a Part 135 Standard certification, giving the company much broader approval to complete drone deliveries, without the need of human line of sight. So far, UPS has expanded its partnerships with hospital complexes, but it's teaming up with CVS to test out retail drone deliveries, too.

There have been a number of other similar drone flight tests in the US, with Google parent Alphabet completing burrito deliveries in 2016 and Amazon Prime Air finishing a test delivery of sunscreen in the controlled airspace of an airport in 2017. Amazon also tested out e-commerce deliveries to customers homes in the United Kingdom.