The drone, painted UPS-brown and carrying a small package, flew from from coastal Beverly, Mass. to Children's Island in just eight minutes, a three-mile journey that takes half an hour by boat. The test across open water to the site of a children's YMCA camp was one of the first forays into how drones could be used to quickly deliver emergency supplies to rural and hard-to-reach areas.
Thursday's test flight was orchestrated by delivery service United Parcel Service and robotmaker CyPhy Works, who have partnered to test emergency drone delivery options in hopes that federal regulations could one day be expanded to allow drones to fly distances beyond the sight of their operators.
But despite claims by online retail giant Amazon, which has been testing drones as a way to deliver orders to customers, UPS and CyPhy engineers do not think that drones are going to replace standard delivery trucks any time soon.
"Drones aren't going to take the place of all delivery, but there are places where you have inaccessible location, an emergency situation where the infrastructure is down, you want or need the package quickly – these are the areas where drones will be the best way to get a package to a location," Helen Greiner, a co-founder of CyPhy Works, told BostInno.
Some scientists have an even broader vision for the role drones could play in emergency health care – not just in rural areas, but also in big cities where rush hour traffic can slow down the delivery of emergency supplies.
Drones have also been used following natural disasters to create 3-D maps of the affected area, detailing where victims are located, potential hazards for first responders, and the status of key infrastructure such as public transit and hospitals.
The Federal Aviation Association (FAA) regulations on commercial drone usage, released in June, create added complications, however: Drones cannot fly above anyone not directly involved in the flight and must remain in sight of vision of the operator at all times.
"Those two things alone make it very difficult, but we'll continue to work with the FAA," John Dodero, the vice president of engineering at UPS, told BostInno at the drones test on Children's Island.
However, Mark Wallace, UPS senior vice president of global engineering, hopes that the FAA will eventually expand the use of drones for the purpose of emergency services and disaster relief, according to Reuters.
The FAA is starting to collect data on drone safety and reliability, which has been absent from the discussion, and may eventually lead to looser regulations.
And in the meantime, tests that cannot be done in the United States are being conducted internationally. UPS is funding a program that uses drones to transport medical supplies in Rwanda, while drone startup Vayu is doing similar work in Madagascar, carrying samples from isolated villages to a lab for testing.
Material from Reuters contributed to this report.