New program tests delivering medications via drone in rural Virginia

A new, innovative method of delivering medication to rural areas and hard to reach locations has been launched in Virginia. 

Elva Malone was coaching the drone delivering her heart medication with a little wave of her hand as she looked skyward. She was coaching it, but she had no control over its direction.

Finally, the drone seemed to comply with what she was hoping it would do.

The remote operator lowered a box with a string, Malone picked it up, and without straying more than a few feet from her front steps, the 75-year-old woman had her medication.

"It’s a tremendous convenience, especially if I can get all my meds," Malone said.

Malone was one of the first recipients of a new program that’s a collaboration between the Accomack County government, Old Dominion University, a company called DroneUp, the Virginia Innovation Partnership Corporation and the Riverside Health System.

The program is funded by a U.S. Department of Transportation grant. USDOT gave the nearly $2 million SMART Grant. SMART stands for Strengthening Mobility and Revolutionizing Transportation.  That grant’s funding came as part of the 2022 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

"I thought it was awesome. I thought, this was like a little old bucolic town. I thought, boy, how progressive for a little place like this to get into drones. It’s the wave of the future, I hope. And I was certainly excited to be part of it," Malone told Fox 5.

Robert Hampshire is the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Research and Technology and Chief Scientist at the U.S. Department of Transportation.

"This is really one of the first times that we’re going to have healthcare and medicines delivered to real patients that are in need of, you know, their medicines first, but also have transportation barriers, particularly getting to the doctor, but getting to the pharmacy," Hampshire said.

According to Nick Chuquin, the President of Riverside Shore Memorial Hospital, one in three people who live on Virginia’s Eastern Shore have hypertension.  Combine that with some of the transit issues that some patient’s face, and this was a logical fit, Chuquin said.

"This is part of our project and what we’re working on is really to work with a plan and a process that can be easily replicated in any rural part of the country. So if we’re successful here, any rural area of the country and implement this and increase being able to deliver medications to patients homes, or medical supplies," Chuquin said.

The U.S. Department of Transportation will study this program; it’s successes and challenges, to determine how to replicate it in other rural areas and one day, potentially in suburban and urban areas.

"This is really the beginning of a new revolution in transportation technology to help people get their medicines and also healthcare," Hampshire said.

Riverside says the deliveries will be free to patients and they’re working on expanding the program to more patients so they can get their medication via drone.