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April 27, 2020 1:00 PM, EDT

UPS to Fly Medications by Drone to Florida Retirement Community

Andreas Raptopoulos, CEO of UPS partner Matternet, walks next to an operator carrying a drone used for medical specimens delivery in North Carolina in March 2019.Andreas Raptopoulos, CEO of UPS partner Matternet, walks next to an operator carrying a drone used for medical specimens delivery in North Carolina in March 2019. (Jonathan Drew/Associated Press)

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UPS Inc. will use drones to fill prescriptions for residents of The Villages in Florida, one of the country’s biggest retirement communities, amid a lockdown to halt the coronavirus.

The time- or temperature-sensitive deliveries from a CVS store about a half-mile away are scheduled to begin May 4. They will mark the first paid residential deliveries by UPS’ drone unit, Flight Forward, which received approval last year to operate under relaxed rules for commercial light-weight unmanned aircraft.

The operation will start with drones dropping the prescriptions at a central location, and a Flight Forward employee will ferry them by golf cart to homes. The goal is for the program to operate under the less stringent rules and make the deliveries directly, with the drone lowering its package by winch, said Bala Ganesh, chief of UPS’ advanced technology group.

“This is the first step in an evolution to a model,” Ganesh said April 27. “In the long run, it would be multiple CVS stores around the community flying directly to the home and dropping whatever the prescriptions may be.”

Drone deliveries hold promise for ferrying medicine and other goods to people who need them quickly or who can’t leave home, and are especially useful when people are being asked to stay home to stop the spread of the virus. Still, the Federal Aviation Administration has been careful about rolling out the technology, and the flights are mostly experimental.

Deliveries by UPS and drone-technology partner Matternet to The Villages, which is about an hour north of Orlando and has some 135,000 residents, may be expanded to include more CVS Health Corp. stores. Sumter County, where The Villages is located, has 171 residents who have tested positive for the virus and 12 deaths from COVID-19, according to Florida Health Department data from April 26.

UPS, Google parent Alphabet Inc. and other companies are pushing forward on drone deliveries under limited conditions. UPS and Matternet have completed more than 3,700 paid drone deliveries on a Raleigh, N.C., hospital campus. Alphabet’s Wing has been making residential deliveries in Christiansburg, Va., in a test program approved in October.

UPS ranks No. 1 on the Transport Topics Top 100 list of the largest for-hire carriers in North America and No. 2 on the TT Top 50 list of the largest logistics companies.

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