UPS operates first ever U.S. drone COVID-19 vaccine delivery

Expanding vaccine distribution means thinking cold as cases heat up
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UPS Flight Forward is now making COVID-19 vaccine deliveries via drone for Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, using new cold chain packaging developed specifically for drones.

According to UPS Flight Forward, this is the first COVID-19 vaccine drone delivery in the U.S. and is an extension of current work for Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist. UPS’s drone airline received a first-of-kind approval from the FAA to carry alkaline and lithium batteries, which are needed to power temperature monitoring devices required by the CDC for COVID-19 vaccine transport. 

“This program paves the way for drones to become a meaningful link within highly-specialized cold chain logistics,” said Dan Gagnon, vice president of global marketing for UPS Healthcare.

UPS Flight Forward worked with Cold Chain Technologies to design a custom, drone-sized solution to maintain temperature control at 2 to 8 degrees Celsius.

“Not only are UPS Flight Forward and Cold Chain Technologies demonstrating a more sustainable way to open vaccine access to remote communities, but the implications extend far beyond COVID-19,” Dan said. “This new cold chain drone capability is a proof point of opportunity for all our healthcare customers, including clinical trial shipments, cold chain pharmaceuticals and other temperature-sensitive biologics.”

See vaccine shipments take to the skies.


Like other COVID-19 vaccine shipments handled by UPS, these drone deliveries include a temperature monitoring device required by the CDC. 

The autonomous, battery-powered drones produce zero operational emissions and are subjected to less vibration than packages moving by ground transport. They require less insulation and can utilize gel packs instead of dry ice since they spend less time in transit.

Because COVID-19 vaccines require strict temperature-control throughout the supply chain, Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist securely stores the vaccine at its central pharmacy before transporting supplies to immunization centers located throughout the community.

For Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist, drones have been carrying specialty infusion medicines and lab specimens for over a year. Infusion medicines are patient-specific and high-cost, with a short shelf life—so delivery by drone within 10 minutes is an ideal solution. Using drones to shuttle vaccines and other pharmaceuticals from its main campus to its network of clinics can improve productivity in its pharmacy by as much as 30%.

This program is the second COVID-19 vaccine drone delivery operation globally, following drone deliveries in Ghana in Africa supported by a public-private partnership between The UPS Foundation, UPS Flight Forward, Zipline and Gavi.

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