With healthcare resources and personnel stretched thin, Mayo Clinic in Florida is using autonomous vehicles to transport medical supplies and COVID-19 tests.

The Jacksonville Transportation Authority has partnered with autonomous shuttle fleet service provider Beep and autonomous driving systems company NAVYA to use autonomous vehicles to safely transport COVID-19 tests collected at a drive-through testing location at Mayo Clinic in Florida.

JTA chief executive officer Nathaniel P. Ford Sr. called the deployment “a historic moment for the Jacksonville Transportation Authority.”

“Along with our partners Beep, NAVYA and Mayo Clinic, we are leveraging our learnings from three years of testing autonomous vehicles through our Ultimate Urban Circulator program,” Ford said in a news release.

Ford continued, “Our innovative team saw this as an opportunity to use technology to respond to this crisis in Northeast Florida and increase the safety of COVID-19 testing.”

In full autonomous mode without attendants or other people onboard, up to four autonomous vehicles began operating on Monday along an initial route to transport COVID-19 tests from a drive-through testing site to a processing laboratory on Mayo Clinic campus.

The COVID-19 test samples are placed in secure containers before Mayo Clinic healthcare professionals load the samples onto the shuttle.

“During a time of rapid change and uncertainty, the ability to think innovatively alongside the Jacksonville Transportation Authority, NAVYA, and Beep during the pandemic has strengthened all of our teams through community collaboration,” said Kent Thielen, M.D., chief executive officer of Mayo Clinic in Florida.

Thielen continued, “Using artificial intelligence enables us to protect staff from exposure to this contagious virus by using cutting edge autonomous vehicle technology, and frees up staff time that can be dedicated to direct treatment and care for patients. We are grateful to JTA, Beep, and NAVYA for their partnership in these challenging times.”

To address the fluid developments of the COVID-19 pandemic, the JTA, Beep, NAVYA and Bestmile teams partnered to create, test and deploy the routes for the autonomous vehicles at Mayo Clinic in Florida. Bestmile is a fleet orchestration and optimization software company.

The routes are isolated from pedestrians, traffic and staff.

Beep, Mayo Clinic and the JTA say they will closely monitor the service from a mobile command center to maintain safe operation.

“Mayo Clinic is known as a leader in innovation and technology for providing world-class healthcare services to their patients in so many important areas of medicine,” said Beep Inc. chief executive officer Joe Moye.

Moye continued, “It is both humbling and exciting to partner with them in bringing this innovative solution to support such a critical challenge facing our country. We are equally as proud to work with our partners at the JTA, NAVYA and Bestmile … in making this happen and doing our part to support this important cause.”

Beep transported the shuttles through Eagle Express Inc. from Lake Nona, Fla., an innovation hub 150 miles away where the company is headquartered in Orlando. An additional shuttle is being operated from the JTA’s Ultimate Urban Circulator program.

The JTA has actively tested autonomous vehicle technology since 2017 to prepare for a conversion and expansion of its Skyway automated people mover in downtown Jacksonville into a network powered by autonomous vehicles. 

“The opportunity to work together with these organizations in an effort to provide a dedicated COVID-19 testing solution represents our goal as a company, and that’s to create a more accessible solution in the moments that matter, whether that be crisis, shortage in manpower and resources, or other areas we can provide aid in,” said NAVYA chief executive officer Étienne Hermite.