The Potential of Drones Providing Health Services

Drones or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are emerging as a new medical tool that can help mitigate logistical problems and make health-care distribution more accessible. Experts are considering various possible applications for drones, from carrying disaster relief aid to transporting transplant organs and blood samples. Drones have the capacity to carry modest payloads and can transport them quickly to their destination.

Drone carrying a first aid box above a tree line

Hiroshi Watanabe / Getty Images

Benefits of drone technology compared to other transportation methods include avoiding traffic in populous areas, circumventing bad road conditions where the terrain is hard to navigate and safely accessing dangerous fly zones in war-torn countries. Although drones are still poorly utilized in emergency situations and relief operations, their contributions have been increasingly recognized. For example, during the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan, a drone was launched in the area. It safely collected the radiation levels in real-time, helping with emergency response planning. In 2017, in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, 43 drone operators were authorized by the Federal Aviation Administration to help with recovery efforts and news organization.

Ambulance Drones That Can Deliver Defibrillators

As a part of his graduate program, Alec Momont of Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands designed a drone that can be used in emergency situations during a cardiac event. His unmanned drone carries essential medical equipment, including a small defibrillator.

When it comes to reanimation, timely arrival at the scene of an emergency is often the decisive factor. Following a cardiac arrest, brain death occurs within four to six minutes, so there is no time to lose. Emergency services response time averages approximately 10 minutes. Approximately 10.6% of people survive an out-of-hospital arrest and 8.3% survive with good neurologic function.

Momont’s emergency drone could drastically change the odds of heart attack survival. His autonomously navigating mini airplane only weighs 4 kilograms (8 pounds) and can fly at around 100 km/h (62 mph). If strategically located in dense cities, it can reach its target destination quickly. It follows the caller’s mobile signal by using GPS technology and is also equipped with a webcam. Using the webcam, emergency service personnel can have a live link with whoever is helping the victim. The first responder on site is provided with a defibrillator and can be instructed on how to operate the device as well as be informed on other measures to save the life of the person in need.

A study performed by researchers from Karolinska Institute and The Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden, showed that in rural areas, a drone—similar to that designed by Momont—arrived faster than emergency medical services in 93 percent of the cases and could save 19 minutes of time on average. In urban areas, the drone reached the scene of the cardiac arrest before an ambulance in 32 percent of the cases, saving 1.5 minutes of time on average. The Swedish study also found that the safest way to deliver an automated external defibrillator was to land the drone on flat ground, or, alternatively, to release the defibrillator from low altitude.

The Drone Center at Bard College found that emergency services applications of drones are the fastest growing area of drone application. There are, however, mishaps that are being recorded when drones participate in emergency responses. For example, drones interfered with the efforts of firefighters battling California's wildfires in 2015. A small aircraft can get sucked into the jet engines of a low-flying manned aircraft, causing both aircraft to crash. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is developing and updating guidelines and rules to ensure safe and legal use of UASs, especially in life and death situations.

Giving Your Mobile Phone Wings

SenseLab, of the Technical University in Crete, Greece, came in third in the 2016 Drones for Good Award, a UAE-based global competition with over 1,000 contestants. Their entry constituted an innovative way to transform your smartphone into a mini drone that could assist in emergency situations. A smartphone is attached to a model drone that can, for example, automatically navigate to a pharmacy and deliver insulin to the user who is in distress.

The phone-drone has four basic concepts: 1) it finds help; 2) brings medicine; 3) records the area of engagement and reports details to a predefined list of contacts; and 4) assists users in finding their way when lost.

The smart drone is only one of SenseLab’s advanced projects. They are researching other practical applications of UAVs as well, such as connecting drones to biosensors on a person with health problems and producing an emergency response if the person’s health suddenly deteriorated.

Researchers are also exploring the use of drones for delivery and pickup tasks for patients with chronic diseases living in rural areas. This group of patients often requires routine checkups and medication refills. Drones could safely deliver medication and collect exam kits, such as urine and blood samples, reducing out-of-pocket expenses and medical costs as well as easing pressure on caregivers.

Can Drones Carry Sensitive Biological Samples?

In the United States, medical drones have yet to be extensively tested. For example, more information is needed on the effects the flight has on sensitive samples and medical equipment. Researchers at Johns Hopkins provided some evidence that sensitive material, such as blood samples, could safely be carried by drones. Dr. Timothy Kien Amukele, a pathologist behind this proof-of-concept study, was concerned about the drone’s acceleration and landing. Jostling movements could destroy blood cells and make samples unusable. Luckily, Amukele’s tests showed that blood was not affected when carried in a small UAV for up to 40 minutes. The samples that were flown were compared to non-flown samples, and their test characteristics did not significantly differ. Amukele performed another test in which the flight was prolonged, and the drone covered 160 miles (258 kilometers), which took 3 hours. This was a new distance record for transporting medical samples using a drone. The samples traveled over the Arizona desert and were stored in a temperature-controlled chamber, which maintained the samples at room temperature using electricity from the drone. The subsequent lab analysis showed that flown samples were comparable to the non-flown. There were small differences detected in glucose and potassium readings, but these can also be found with other transport methods and might be due to lack of careful temperature control in the non-flown samples.

The Johns Hopkins team is now planning a pilot study in Africa that is not in the vicinity of a specialized lab—therefore benefiting from this modern health technology. Given the flight capacity of a drone, the device may be superior to other means of transport, especially in remote and underdeveloped areas. Furthermore, the commercialization of drones is making them less expensive compared to other transportation methods that have not evolved the same way. Drones could ultimately be a health technology game-changer, especially for those who have been limited by geographic constraints.

Several researcher teams have been working on optimization models that could help deploy drones economically. The information is likely to help decision-makers when coordinating emergency responses. For instance, increasing a drone's flight height raises the costs of the operation, while increasing the speed of a drone generally reduces costs and increases the service area of the drone.

Different companies are also exploring ways for drones to harvest power from the wind and sun. A team from Xiamen University in China and the University of Western Sydney in Australia are also developing an algorithm for supplying multiple locations using one UAV. Specifically, they are interested in the logistics of blood transport, considering different factors such as the weight of blood, temperature and time. Their findings could be applied to other areas as well, for example, optimizing food transport using a drone.

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