The first autonomous drone delivery network will fly above Switzerland starting next month

Logistics company Matternet has announced a permanent autonomous drone network in Switzerland that will now see lab samples like blood tests and other diagnostics flown between hospital facilities, clinics, and labs. The first delivery network will be operational from next month, with several more to be introduced later in the year. Matternet says medical items can be delivered to hospitals within 30 minutes.

Matternet, based in Menlo Park, California, was granted authorization to operate its drones over densely populated areas in Switzerland in March and says that approval was a world first. Today, the company unveiled a Matternet Station; a kind of white, futuristic looking postbox with a footprint measuring about two square meters, that can be installed on rooftops or on the ground to send and receive packages by drone.

The drone network is part of a partnership with Swiss Post, and is significant because it’s the first operational drone network flying in dense urban areas that’s not a pilot run or in testing. Last month, Zipline announced plans to operate its blood delivering service by drone in Tanzania by early next year as well. A pair of hospitals in Lugano in Switzerland had previously tested Matternet drone flights to deliver lab samples. Matternet plans to establish a regular service starting in early 2018.

“These types of diagnostics that need to be transported are urgent in nature and they are on demand,” Andreas Raptopoulos co-founder and CEO of Matternet told The Verge. “They have to wait for a courier, sometimes they get taxis to do this type of thing — and when you have a system like this, that is autonomous and reliable, it completely transforms operations.”

Users operate the system via an app to create shipment details. Items are placed into a compartment box in the station before being loaded into a drone for delivery. Currently the drones can hold up to 2kg (4.4 pounds). Packages are then flown to another Matternet station, where receivers can obtain their package by scanning a QR code.

 Photo: Matternet

After a drone lands, it also swaps out its battery so the drone remains charged. The maximum distance a drone can travel is 20km (12.4 miles) depending on weather conditions like high winds, and they have cruising speeds of 70 kilometers per hour (43.5 miles per hour). Matternet says initially, about one to two drones will operate per network. Each station features an “automated aerial deconfliction system” that manages drone traffic over the station.

Matternet also envisions that in the future the stations could also be placed at grocery stores or gas stations for deliveries. Matternet says the next markets it wants to tackle are Germany and the UK, once it has a solid footing in Switzerland.