Unmanned aerial system (UAS) service provider Volansi Inc. is testing drone delivery of temperature-sensitive vaccines in rural North Carolina in partnership with pharmaceutical company Merck.

Autonomous drone vaccine delivery can significantly reduce the time it takes a vaccine to reach a patient and will help address logistical and infrastructure barriers that prevent access to high-quality preventative care, especially in vast, rural, eastern North Carolina with 1.4 million people in 29 counties. Initial flights from Merck’s Wilson, North Carolina, manufacturing site to the Vidant Healthplex-Wilson clinic marked the first drone delivery of temperature-controlled medicines within the continental U.S.

Volansi CEO and Co-Founder Hannan Parvizian says, “Drone delivery is one solution to getting critical supplies where they are needed, at the moment they are needed most.”

The project uses Volansi’s VOLY C10, an all-electric, vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) drone capable of carrying 10 lb of cargo up to 50 miles. A soft-touch release delivers fragile cargo once the drone has landed.

Volansi is collaborating with the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Unmanned Aircraft System Integration Pilot Program and the North Carolina Department of Transportation to ensure that its deliveries are made safely and in accordance with state and federal guidelines.

“This pilot helps us explore new innovative delivery options that would complement our existing supply chain capabilities,” says Craig Kennedy, Merck’s senior vice president, global supply chain management.

Merck and Volansi previously collaborated on delivering temperature-sensitive medicines in the Bahamas and Puerto Rico after hurricanes Maria and Florence. Key takeaways from those operations helped push expansion.