NC DOT announces drone programs to combat COVID-19

FILE - This Jan. 25, 2019 file photo shows a drone in North Carolina. A survey released Monday, May 20, 2019 shows transportation agencies are using drones in nearly every U.S. state. (AP Photo/Hans Pennink, File)

RALEIGH — On Friday, April 24, 2020, the North Carolina Department of Transportation held a webinar announcing plans for a public-private partnership around drones to deliver “critical medical supplies and food” during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Julie White, deputy secretary of multimodal transportation for N.C. DOT, welcomed journalists, industry professionals and other interested parties to the presentation webinar. White said there were over 300 people signed up for the virtual presentation and that she was “thrilled to see the level of interest in this really important topic in this important time.”

White said their goal at N.C. DOT was to connect people in innovative and creative ways, or “build the plane as we’re flying it,” and the drone initiative is another example of doing that.

The initiative will begin in May and will involve three main projects. The first is delivering medical supplies to Novant Health facilities in the Charlotte area using drones made by Zipline. The second will involve both UPS Flight Forward and Matternet using their fleet to deliver medical supplies to an unnamed hospital in Winston-Salem. UPS Flight Forward already delivers supplies by drone to WakeMed in Raleigh. Lastly, neighborhoods in Holly Springs will get the opportunity to have food from local restaurants delivered to their homes using Flytrex drones.

One major goal of the initiative is to gather data on best practices and share that with other areas around the country working on similar drone delivery programs.

“North Carolina has been a leader in demonstrating how drones can help people in times of crisis,” said state Transportation Secretary Eric Boyette said in a press release on the initiative. “We look forward to putting this technology into productive use as we work to help citizens and medical professionals during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The N.C. DOT has been working since 2018 within the Federal Aviation Administration’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Pilot Program, a federal program to research the use of drones across all sectors of society: including, “state, local and tribal governments, and private industries.”