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The Swiss postal service is using autonomous drones to fly lab samples between two hospitals

An early example of drone delivery in a populated urban area.


The Swiss Post has started to fly drones to deliver laboratory samples between two hospitals in the city of Lugano — area population 150,000 — near the Italian border.

The national mail service partnered with California-based drone company Matternet to supply the drones and flight system, and has been flying them since the middle of March.

In the past two weeks, the drones have completed around 70 successful autonomous flights. The drones flew on their own without anyone directly piloting or watching the drones in person. Matternet says it has personnel monitoring all the flights from a remote location in case something goes awry.


Matternet’s quadcopters are small, measuring only 31 inches in diameter. They can carry a payload weighing up to about four pounds and travel at a speed of about 22 miles per hour.

The program was approved by the Swiss aviation authority, which has granted permission for the drone delivery service to run in a test phase. By 2018, the plan is to make drones a regular way of ferrying supplies between the two hospitals.

The drones take off and return from landing pads positioned outside the hospitals, where the aircraft releases the package it’s carrying once it touches ground. Hospital staff load up the drones themselves and send them off from the landing pad with the press of a button on an app, which they’ve been trained to use — no piloting required.

This program puts Switzerland ahead of the U.S. in the race to drone delivery, where flying a drone beyond the line of sight of an operator requires getting a special waiver from the the Federal Aviation Authority.

To date, only a small handful of those waivers have been approved, but creating rules for drones to fly beyond the line of sight of an operator will be critical to figure out for a viable drone delivery operation, since the whole point of drone delivery is that there isn’t a person there for the delivery.

Watch a video of a drone delivery between the two hospitals.

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