Although drones are well known for their ability to capture beautiful high-resolution aerial videos and photos of landscapes, cities, and hard-to-reach areas, they are becoming increasingly indispensable in the field of healthcare.
As small, remote-controlled aerial devices, they offer unique advantages for transporting medicines and life-saving equipment compared to other methods. Furthermore, during the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, drones have allowed expedited delivery of laboratory samples, allowing physicians and researchers to make faster diagnostic and treatment decisions.
Delivery of medicines and supplies
Based on a 2019 deal between the United Parcel Service (UPS), wholesale pharmaceutical distributor AmerisourceBergen, and CVS Pharmacy, drones were allowed to deliver prescriptions and retail products to the doorsteps of CVS customers.
For AmerisourceBergen, UPS drones transported “certain pharmaceuticals, supplies and records to qualifying medical campuses across the United States, with plans to later expand to other sites of care,” according to an article in the Boston Business Journal. UPS was also seeking to partner with Kaiser Permanente for healthcare and other shipments on its hospital campuses.
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In situations where disease transmission is a concern, such as during COVID-19, drones have fit the role perfectly. In 2020, CVS and UPS began delivering prescriptions to residents of The Villages in Florida, the largest retirement community in the U.S. with over 135,000 people.
Additionally, in 2021, a medical drone effort supported by Johnson & Johnson allowed Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) medications to be delivered to people in the Kalangala islands of Uganda, a remote area in East Africa.
There are an estimated 1.4 million people living in Uganda with HIV, and rates of HIV on the Kalangala islands have increased by up to 25 percent annually due “in part to political and cultural barriers to HIV prevention programs there,” stated a 2021 J&J press release.
Delivery of laboratory samples
In both crowded urban areas and isolated rural areas, drones offer a flexible and often speedier method of transport compared to other traditional methods. Since 2017, Matternet, a drone logistics company based in California, has been successfully partnering with Swiss Post.
According to the Swiss Post website, a “car journey lasting 45 minutes becomes a flight of just a few minutes in the uncongested airspace, which means true added value for customers and their patients.”
In 2017, Swiss Post collaborated with Ticino hospital group EOC to launch Lugano’s first drone service, which has completed over 2,000 flights since its inception.
Even more impressive was the delivery of lab samples “high above the basin of Lake Zurich on behalf of Zentrallabor Zürich (ZLZ)” from June 2018 to Spring 2019. The drone covered the distance between the ZLZ emergency laboratory and the central laboratory in about seven minutes, “Reaching its destination up to five times faster than a road courier,” the company’s website celebrated.
Zipline, a company that designs, builds, and operates drone aircraft, has also become heavily involved in healthcare delivery. Packages delivered in Rwanda and Ghana have included whole blood, platelets, frozen plasma, cryoprecipitate, and medical supplies.
The drones can fly to any area within 80 kilometers in under 45 minutes and can carry up to 1.75 kilograms at an altitude of 400 to 500 meters. Payloads are released via parachute to people on the ground to collect before the drones return to the distribution center for reloading.
Emergency response services
In emergency situations, seconds may mean the difference between life and death. TU Delft has made great strides in developing the world’s first ambulance drone, which will target instances of “heart failure, drowning, traumas and respiratory issues.” The company is still working on commercializing the drones.
The creators say around 800,000 individuals suffer from cardiac arrest in the European Union every year, but only eight percent survive. Slow response times of 10 minutes by emergency services are too slow, the company states, as “brain death and permanent death start to occur in just 4 to 6 minutes.”
Automated External Defibrillators (AEDs), Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation (CPR) aids, and medications are just some of the possible life-saving items to be carried by the machines.
Furthermore, the creators say they plan to incorporate “a two-way, video supported, communication channel in the drone between 112 operators and the first responders” to improve outcomes.
Additionally, Ehang, a company based in Guangzhou, China, plans to partner with healthcare providers in Europe to create emergency response services using its two-seat passenger-grade autonomous aerial vehicles (AAVs) and Falcon medium-sized AAV. These aircraft will be able to quickly carry medical supplies and even personnel to emergency scenes.
However, several potential downsides to the use of drones must first be addressed, including the possibility of failing equipment, the costs of purchase and maintenance, the need to hire and train technical staff to operate the machines, and possible theft or damage to equipment and medications.
There are also concerns about privacy if hacking or interception of deliveries occurs.