DroneUp had one of its drones on display in Roanoke on Friday. Photo by Steve Hemphill.

While much of America spent 2020 in quarantine and avoiding contact with each other, the idea of using drones to get what you need gained momentum.

But even as the masks came off and trips downtown were no longer frowned upon, the buzz around the drones did not wane.

That was proved once again this week at a parking garage in Roanoke’s medical services district.

Carilion Clinic announced on Friday that it is looking at what drone technology can do to help in both internal and external operations.

(Disclosure: Carilion Clinic is one of our approximately 2,500 donors, but donors have no say in news decisions; see our policy.)

The Roanoke-based health system staged a demonstration of a drone delivery service that it will spend the next three weeks studying, to determine the feasibility of shipping products above the city instead of through it.

It’s the latest experiment that Carilion has made in what Paul Davenport, its vice president of emergency medicine, describes as a never-ending search for efficiency.

“Carilion Clinic as a system is highly complex,” Davenport said. “There’s a lot of moving parts and a lot of demand for certain things, and a lot of times there’s unknown things that come up. The main thing we’re trying to do is to make sense out of a lot of chaos.”

During a Friday afternoon news conference, Davenport joined officials from DroneUp, a Virginia Beach-based autonomous drone delivery provider, as they conducted a demonstration of DroneUp’s product.

The maiden mission was to transport a small delivery box from a Carilion warehouse on Franklin Road to its Riverside Circle campus, which is a little more than a 1.5-mile drive.

Despite a moderate breeze, the drone completed its mission in about 5 minutes, lowering the box via a winch cable and then returning to its home base. Over the next three weeks, Davenport said Carilion and DroneUp will send various sizes of cargo to locations within a 1.5-mile zone.

Davenport said Carilion is looking at two possible functions for the drones to start. First, he believes internal operations could run more smoothly and manpower be used more efficiently if the drones handled small or unexpected deliveries within the health system’s numerous offices and medical facilities around the Roanoke Valley.

“What really excites us about this is that sometimes people have to [deliver] things unexpectedly,” he said. “This consumes our workforce; that could lead to difficulties and delays. So what this does is help us envision transporting small items more efficiently.”

Second, Davenport said he hopes drones could eventually be used to send supplies to patients who might have trouble leaving their homes. He noted that some of Carilion’s operations in rural Southwest Virginia, where health care personnel are often limited and the service area is vast, could benefit the most from such technology.

“In the future, we’d like to reach our rural patients,” Davenport said. “This is really only the beginning. What real success we could see is extending into a rural environment and delivering things that patients either need but can’t get, or delivering things that our [rural] facilities need.”  

This is one of two medical-oriented experiments DroneUp is currently conducting, according to Greg James, the company’s vice president of business development. It’s working on a similar test with Newport News-based Riverside Health Systems.

According to a press release sent out in March, the Riverside project is being conducted through a partnership that also includes Old Dominion University and the Accomack-Northampton Planning District Commission. The joint venture also received $75,000 startup funding from the Virginia Innovation Partnership Corporation.

Carilion spokesperson Hannah Curtis said the Roanoke health system is exploring grant opportunities but has not received any yet.

Carilion and DroneUp first started talking about what kinds of services drones could provide about 18 months ago and eventually came up with a list of possibilities.

James said using drone technology for health services is a natural pivot for the company and not too different from retail, where DroneUp has achieved initial success.

Just a few days before Thanksgiving 2021, DroneUp began retail delivery service from several Walmarts in northwest Arkansas. The operation has since expanded to six other cities in five other states, including Virginia Beach and Orlando, Florida. For a $3.99 delivery fee, orders can be made and received in about 30 minutes.

James said the most popular ordering times are around lunch and dinner time.

And the most popular item? Hamburger Helper.

“What we’re finding out is that a lot of households will discover that either there’s nothing in the house for dinner or maybe they’re missing a couple of ingredients and they can’t or don’t want to leave again,” James said. “But they can put in an order with DroneUp and it will be delivered in about 30 minutes.”

James said the success the company has had with Walmart has given DroneUp the confidence that its model is practical. With Carilion, the company hopes to see how things will work with different logistics. For instance, the Roanoke operation must defer to Carilion’s medical air transport system.

An example of this came Friday, when the drone demonstration was delayed by about 15 minutes as it waited for Carilion’s Life-Guard helicopter to return to the hospital following a late-morning emergency.

“What I’m interested in seeing [in Roanoke] is where we can deliver around their campus, what kind of impact that has for their material delivery team as well as those who are receiving the goods,” James said. “This [type of service] is what really gets us excited. This is innovation and technology that can provide a great outcome for a customer and healthcare provider, but also for a patient.”

After the June testing is complete, Davenport said Carilion and DroneUp will look at the data and determine the next step.

“We have many decades’ worth of experience in innovation, and we’re continuing to use technology for our customers,” Davenport said. “This is just an extension of that innovation continuing.”

Steve Hemphill has worked for more than 30 years as both a sports reporter and editor. He is the former...