Palo Alto Plans to Use Drones for Blood Deliveries

Palo Alto and Stanford Blood Center make a pitch to the Federal Aviation Administration

Stanford Blood Center is looking to use drones for blood product deliveries on a case-by-case basis through a proposal with the city and manufacturer Matternet plans to send to the Federal Aviation Administration. Weekly file photo.

Blood-carrying drones may soon make their debut in Palo Alto skies under a program that city and Stanford University officials are hoping to launch in 2018.

The city has partnered with Stanford Blood Center and drone manufacturer Matternet on a proposal to the Federal Aviation Administration, which is planning to select five projects involving unmanned aircraft systems, commonly known as drones. The proposal calls for establishing an “approved flight path” west of Junipero Serra Boulevard that could be used by drones shuttling between the Stanford Blood Center, which is located at Stanford Research Park, and Stanford Hospital.

The City Council approved the application on Dec. 11, two days before the initial submission deadline (final applications are due by Jan. 4, according to a report from the Public Works Department. If the FAA approves the proposal and proceeds with a formal agreement, staff would return for council approval, according to the city’s announcement. Palo Alto staff would then proceed with conducting the necessary environmental reviews and soliciting community feedback.

According to the letter of interest from Stanford Blood Center, the center aims to use drones in “very limited clinical settings where timely delivery of blood products of diagnostic specimens is of the utmost importance.”

“Examples include emergent delivery of blood products from Stanford Blood Center when there are patients whose usage outpace the available in-house inventory at the hospital,” the letter states. “More importantly, we are extremely aware and sensitive to the concerns of residents; every measure to eliminate intrusiveness and maximize safety will be taken.”

The Public Works report argues that while the drone program can lead to “many positive benefits to the community,” any operation would require the city and Stanford to address a list of issues before approval can be granted. These include safe drone operations, compatibility of drones with sensitive environmental habitats and impacts to residents, including noise and privacy.

Both Stanford and the city believe the collaboration, if successful, would further bolster the region’s reputation for technological innovation. Public Works staff believe the program “could provide a worthwhile framework for engaging key stakeholders in a proactive and constructive manner and potentially influence national policy on conditions and requirements necessary for safe and community-sensitive UAS (unmanned aircraft systems) operations.”

The Stanford proposal isn’t the only drone operation that the city is considering. Multirotor, a German company that makes drones and which counts the Berlin Police Department and the German Army among its clients, has recently opened a Redwood City location to “unlock the US market and to win local partners for adapting our technology to the specific requirements of US customers,” the company’s CEO Marian Meier-Andrae wrote in a Dec. 5 letter to Palo Alto Assistant City Manager Ed Shikada.

Modern drone technology, Meier-Andrae wrote, has the potential to “make operations in the public services sector safer, more efficient and greener.” They could be used, for example, to conduct inspections that have traditionally been carried out by humans at great heights, thus reducing the risk of injury or death. They can also replace manned systems such as helicopters and ground vehicles, resulting in lower noise and emission levels, as well as reduced costs, Meier-Andrae wrote.

In Palo Alto, Multirotor proposes to apply drone technology for airport operations and maintenance, which includes runway inspections, wildlife detection and perimeter surveillance. Other uses, according to the letter, include law enforcement (for example, to conduct accident-scene reconnaissance or crime scene reconstruction) and disaster relief (tasks may include damage appraisal and hot-spot detection).

The FAA plans to select the “lead applicants” in early 2018 and to enter into a memorandum of agreement with each by May 7, according to the agency’s website.