Pharmaceutical giant Merck is teaming up with San Francisco-based drone startup Volansi to improve vaccine delivery in remote areas. 

The companies have launched a pilot program in rural North Carolina to test their ability to deliver temperature-controlled vaccines from a central production facility to more far-flung areas.  

"Once vaccines are developed and are out there, distribution will be a key challenge," CEO Hannan Parvizian told Cheddar. "We truly believe that autonomous aerial deliveries will enable access to all areas, both in high-infrastructure countries like here in the U.S. and also in other low-infrastructure countries in emerging markets like Africa and other places in the world." 

Indeed, temperature-controlled storage is insufficient in many countries to pull off a COVID-19 immunization campaign, making creative solutions such as drones a potential necessity. 

At the center of the experiment is the Voly C10, the startup's latest drone model designed to haul "cold-chain" medical supplies and vaccines autonomously across hospital systems. 

"It has a 10-pound payload capacity and can cover a 50-mile radius on a single trip," Parvizian said. "That allows us to carry not only a significant amount of payload but also the cargo box that is required to maintain the temperature of the payload throughout the mission." 

The pilot study is focused on rural areas for now, with a particular focus on schools and hospitals, but the partnership has its sights on eventually moving into urban markets.

"That's how we will be ramping up, starting out with more rural areas and eventually moving into much more densely populated areas," Parvizian said.  

He added that the drones are capable of hauling around 80 percent of all drugs and medical supplies, including blood donations. 

"There are probably some specialty items that are heavier or require much more care or not compatible with this type of delivery, but right now we're not seeing any sort of big limitations on the types of payloads we can transport," he said. 

Other companies such as Zipline have a similar model, but Parvizian said Volansi differs in that all drones use vertical take-off and landing as opposed to a catapult launcher.  

"That means we don't require any sort of ground infrastructure for launch and recovery of our vehicles," he said. 

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