To find out how drone operators are working with manufacturers, what barriers have traditionally stood in the way of getting operations off the ground and what manufacturers can do to support operators in the future, we recently spoke to Justin Steinke, Senior Vice President of Commercial Business at Spright.
The company was founded by the parent company Air Methods, one of the largest medical helicopter companies in the US. When they set up Spright, they saw an opportunity as a commercial drone operator for the delivery of medical supplies such as blood samples.
Spright has also been in the news multiple times in the past few months after switching their delivery drones to the Detroit-based blueflight, which is a drone manufacturer founded in 2018 and caters to the logistics industry. In a recent press release, Spright’s President Joe Resnik said, “We chose Blueflite because of their advanced drone tech and digital integration. Our requirements to provide drone-enabled medical logistics services greatly benefit from a one-stop solution, like the Blueflite platform, to enable end-to-end automation, data services, and full integration with existing systems.”
While there has been a recent increase in Spright's presence in the logistics industry, their focus has really been on two main areas: utility inspections and medical deliveries. Justin explained that this has been a challenge due to the strict regulations in the US for drone operations licences, so they've recently been more involved in international drone operations while regulations are developed in their home country.
One of the most popular use cases for drones is the improvement of medical deliveries, which is not surprising as there are significant problems with the medical supply chain in our society today that drones are currently able to solve. That is exactly why Air Methods, which has over 400 aircraft and 300 bases in the United States, decided to get into the drone industry.
The original idea was that these bases could be used cross-functionally as a platform that would then be used for other operations. This goes against what Air Methods was doing traditionally, which was almost exclusively the movement of people between hospitals or from the area where an accident occurs to a hospital.
After discussions with hospitals to learn more about their pain points, the Air Methods team realised that there was a huge demand for a new and emerging market of medical drone deliveries. However, this wasn't without challenges as they began to learn about the requirements of these new deliveries, including the size and weight of packages, which could include a very large object weighing just one kilo.
This affects the number of drones needed to facilitate the delivery needs that a single hospital might have, which adds an extra layer of initial complexity. On top of that, Justin explained to us that the regulations in the US are very difficult to navigate. So, while Spright is going through the type certification process and already has an active 135 certificate, it's not easy to scale operations there.
Spright moved into the international market to begin building and scaling its operations. While this may seem preemptive from an organisational perspective, the team has been able to build the necessary operations to determine that labs, pharmacies and hospitals are viable business models for the future. This wasn't possible to test in the United States.
As far as the technical operations are concerned, Spright is agnostic about the type of aircraft they use. They have small aircraft for correspondingly small operations and then medium and larger aircraft for correspondingly large operations. The investment in larger aircraft has been made almost exclusively in Switzerland, where they are able to operate over distances of hundreds of kilometres at a time. This is due to the fact that Switzerland is extremely open to the use of drones by both international and local organisations.
Another mentality that has helped the organisation to thrive in this evolving regulatory environment is that they take a 'crawl, walk, run' approach to their operations, which is popular with the regulators. In other words, it starts by testing smaller operations with smaller volumes to understand whether additional risks exist beyond the initial risk assessment before steadily increasing volume and frequency. The plan is to move on to larger pieces of equipment for hospitals over the next couple of years.
For hospitals, this is a relief. Many have tried to order drone deliveries without fully understanding the challenge of actually getting a service up and running. This is why Spright has put a lot of effort into educating customers on the actual realistic implementation of operations, trying to manage expectations and get them to more realistic timelines that match their experience with regulators and approvals from relevant authorities.
Because Spright has been created by Air Methods, a traditional aviation organisation, they have the knowledge and process optimisation skills of their parent company. Spright has also been involved with the drone industry for the past decade, making it one of the early adopters of the new technology while also providing first-hand experience of an evolving industry from the perspective of an established company.
“You still have a lot of drone manufacturers and software solutions that are trying to find each other and put together one package. And, when you go to the customer, none of this actually matters. What matters is that they're expecting a service and they don't necessarily care how you do it. But, it has to be reliable, and it has to work. And, one of the things I always tell our customers about is that if I take a two-step process, and I use a drone now, and it's twelve steps, it fails, the whole thing falls apart. And so, it's really important to look at how that works.”
The problem is that a lot of customers are ready and want to start using commercial drone operators as a service, but it's taking a long time to commercialise these operations due to various regulatory challenges that continue to be raised over the years. Pilot programmes have also contributed to a lot of disappointment on both sides because they haven't been able to scale up.
At the moment they're really focused on getting commercial services and contracts off the ground. They're still very much in a crawl, walk, run mode from a regulatory perspective. Justin told us that he thinks the next phase of this will really focus on how the drone is just one piece of a much bigger puzzle that includes how the drone interacts with the hospital, where it lands, how the request is made and how the chain of custody is managed.
The one thing that everyone (operators, manufacturers and stakeholders) should keep in mind is that if a medical drone delivery goes wrong, it can cause all sorts of unintended problems. Take, for example, the delivery of blood. If a patient is having their blood drawn to test for a disease or condition that's urgent enough to use a drone to fly that sample to the lab, and that delivery fails, time that's critical to saving that patient's life has been lost. This means that drone companies getting involved in medical drone delivery have a responsibility to ensure that operations are safe and reliable.
Another common problem we've heard about for years is the mentality that ‘my organisation can build an end-to-end solution for the drone industry’, which sounds great, but it's simply not possible. Although drones have the potential to provide reliable, fast, efficient, cheap and safe medical deliveries, most people struggle to understand how difficult it is to implement.
To better understand this, just ask yourself how this is going to work. You already have a drone that can carry the medical supplies (a challenge in itself). But where is it going to land? On the existing infrastructure that is connected to the hospital? Will the people working in the lab have to walk to the landing site to get the samples from the drone? How far will they have to walk? How much of their time is going to be taken up by this process?
Even if hospitals are initially excited by the potential, they won't spend the time of their already limited staff to make this type of operation work. It's an interesting challenge for drone manufacturers and operators to solve, and it won't be cheap or easy. That’s why Justin told us that “we want more competitors to do what we're doing because we want more people to show that there's actually commercial viability to a lot of these medical use cases.”
Their focus has been mainly on hospitals, laboratories, pharmacies and the movement of people between these facilities. However, they would like to see those focusing on organ delivery also succeed in this role, as this would help the whole industry move forward. This could be a huge advantage as it can take more than 30 minutes to drive from one point in a major city to another, whereas it could take just a few minutes in designated drone airspaces.
Another problem is that these different contexts end up creating a divide between operators and manufacturers. Operators may need slightly different designs for the drones depending on the operation they're going to perform. Most manufacturers don't have the mindset that they're going to build something and then modify it for the drone operator, so it's hard for most operators to work with manufacturers to fulfil specific operational requirements.
This is much different compared to the mentality of the traditional aviation industry where planes have different configurations depending on the airline, including different avionics. While drone manufacturers develop and produce one drone that operators need to build their operations around. This was one of the biggest challenges Spright faced, but they were thankfully able to solve this by working with reliable partners who have the space to work with them on adaptations.
Justin told us that this shift in perspective is necessary for future drone manufacturers because it's up to the operator to navigate these regulations, and they need manufacturers willing to work to empower them. Instead of thinking about how that drone will navigate potential regulations in the future to fulfil operational missions, they're developing drones based on their own intuition or gut feelings.
For manufacturers, they need to understand that if they don't gather those requirements and design the drone to meet them, they're going to end up in a scenario where they're not going to be successful. After a long search, Spright was able to find the right manufacturer. But other operators still face the same challenge, which Justin sees in 90% of drone events. Manufacturers are just not ready for this challenge.
More and more, we're seeing drone organisations focus on the user perspective. That's something that has been overlooked in conferences and organisational strategies over the last decade. Many people are not used to navigating a complex set of regulations, so as an industry, we need to educate external stakeholders and future customers to help them understand how the system works.
However, this has proved to be a struggle as many of the organisations come from the technology rather than the aviation industry, so both they and their customers have had to work together to learn about these regulations and try to get working drone services up and running. Spright, on the other hand, is on the other side of this spectrum. They come from the traditional aviation industry, where it's commonplace to have to navigate strict safety regulations.
This means that Spright has a different approach to helping clients, one that's focused on setting realistic expectations that take into account these complex regulatory environments. Particularly for those in the medical drone delivery industry, this has proven to be an invaluable and unique perspective.
Justin ended the interview with us by saying that, “I hope people continue to work together and do this as a group. We are one industry that needs to support each other to get to where we need to go. I think everybody beats up on the regulators all the time, but the reality is that regulators need a good cohesive package to say, we think this is acceptable. And, I don't think there's still a lot of that happening. So, we don't have a lot of problems with the regulators because we understand how that works, and we just deliver them.”
Spright, an organisation founded by Air Methods, offers advanced uncrewed aerial systems (UAS) solutions designed to streamline ground operations. By integrating innovative technology and a service model, Spright is trying to reshape the healthcare delivery and utility inspection sectors. With over 70 years of aviation experience, FAA relationships, and existing operator certificates, the company provides autonomous bi-directional and beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) end-to-end solutions.
Air Methods, Spright's parent company, is a prominent player in air medical services, serving over 100,000 people annually. At the heart of Spright's operations is the emphasis on simplicity, safety, agility and sustainability. The company uses a Safety Management System (SMS) to ensure safe operations. With an agile approach, Spright stays ahead of the rapidly evolving drone delivery ecosystem, and its commitment to sustainability is reflected in its use of 100% electric, zero-emission drones.
Founded with a mission to address global challenges, Spright leverages emerging aeronautical technology to create efficient solutions for local operations. Its leadership team brings over 70 years of aviation operational experience to the table, setting a strong foundation for the company's innovative endeavours.
Justin Steinke is Spright's Senior Vice President of Commercial Business. He leads the company's vision for uncrewed systems, charting a path for the future of uncrewed flight. With a strong focus on the integration of unmanned systems into the national airspace system, he is a driving force behind the company's innovative advances in autonomous beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) solutions.
Justin brings an impressive 20 years of aviation experience to his role. He has a rich background that spans multiple disciplines. His areas of expertise include product development, sales and business development. These diverse skills have made him an integral part of Spright's leadership team.
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