Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) or drones are a growing technology which has the potential to transform medical care and health outcomes worldwide. With novel data terminals, propulsion principles, and sensing equipment, drone designs have become a popular topic of research. Additional features, such as cameras, radar, micro size, and communication systems, also make drones highly beneficial in surveillance, radiofrequency assessment, cargo delivery, agriculture, and medicine. Although drone development for medical purposes falls behind other drone applications, such as photography, more and more experts support the implementation of robotic aerial systems within medical settings.
When it comes to health-related use, aerial and ground-based drones can be employed across hazardous environments, disaster areas, and hard-to-reach sites. Interestingly, robotic aerial technology was used after Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines to assess initial damage and injuries (Rosser et al., 2018). Drones provide smart operational capabilities and real-time data, which can facilitate transportation of microbes, assessment of laboratory specimen, telemedicine, and even surgical interventions.Specimen management can be a challenging task within medical settings. As proper collection and transportation of laboratory specimen is essential to ensure patient and environmental health, drone transport has become a relevant topic of research, especially in hard-to-reach regions and places with poor infrastructure. Note that poor infrastructure and road access can inflame pandemic outbreaks. In fact, experts claim that restricted road access was one of the major factors that worsened the West African Ebola outbreak. One of the most important requirements for drone transport of microbes in laboratory specimens is to undergo specimen-specific validation to prevent damage to the specimens. To evaluate the impact drone transport have on laboratory sample types, Amukele and colleagues (2016) examined drone use for transport of microbes in blood and sputum specimens:
- Six pairs of aerobic and anaerobic Bactec blood culture bottles of 10 ml of whole blood were collected; each spiked with microorganisms (Staphylococcus aureus, Streptococcus pneumoniae, Escherichia coli and Bacteroides fragile, respectively).
- Pathogen-free, nonmucoidal sputa were collected over a 10-day period and split into 52 vials; 36 of these vials were introduced with S. aureus or S. pneumoniae.
- Half of these specimens (class 6.2 infectious substance) were flown for 30 minutes (or the equivalent of 20-25 km) in a fixed-winged aircraft launched by a hand toss (the fuselage of the drone was made of Styrofoam).
The research team didn’t find any significant differences between flown and stationary specimens, meaning drones can be employed in the successful transportation of microbes and samples. Note that laboratory testing can benefit diagnoses and improve treatments. Yet, factors such as atmospheric pressure, temperature, weather conditions, and acceleration should be considered. Amukele and colleagues (2016), for instance, supported the drone body with custom-cut vibration-absorbing foam to prevent possible damage due to acceleration and landing.Drones can be used not only for the transport of microbes in blood and sputum specimens but for the transportation of vaccines, donors, supplies, and medical equipment:
- Drone transport for human organ transplants: Unmanned auricle vehicle can facilitate the transportation of donors. Note that currently, donor transportation depends on schedules of couriers or charters, which can be costly. Due to their sensitive nature, human transplants must be moved quickly as cold ischemia time (the time between an organ has been removed and chilled and the time its blood supply restored) is limited. Note that some organs, such as lung and heart, may not be usable after four hours; others such as livers can last up to 18 hours, while kidneys may be preserved for up to 36 hours. By shortening transportation times, drones can save lives, especially in hard-to-reach areas. In fact, Scalea and colleagues (2018) used a six-motor drone to model 14 organ transportation missions of a research kidney. The team used a commercially available drone with six vertically oriented motors and a maximum speed of 40 mph, which they modified and called Human Organ Monitoring and Quality Assurance Apparatus for Long-Distance Travel (HOMAL). The distance of the longest flight was three miles, and the kidney was monitored via a wireless biosensor and GP Factors, such as temperatures (kept <2.5 C), pressure (0.37-0.86 kPa), vibration (<0.5 G), and velocity were considered. The drone system proved to be an effective method to deliver organs.
- Drone transport of blood: Drones can be used to deliver blood samples not only for laboratory testing but supplies. Amukele and colleagues (2016) collected six leukoreduced red blood cell, six apheresis platelet, and six unthawed plasma units (frozen after collection) and placed them in a cooler attached to a drone. The drone was flown for up to 26.5 meters, with temperatures varying between -1 and 18 C. The research team found no significant impact of drone transport and concluded that drones could be used as an effective transport method of blood products. In fact, numerous countries across the globe, including the US, India, Tanzania, and Rwanda, are investing in drone transportation. To set an example, Alice Mutimiutugye, who started bleeding severely during labor, was saved with a drone-based technology. A drone carrying blood supply that matched her blood type reached the woman in half an hour – something that would’ve been impossible via another mode of transport.
- Drone transport of vaccines: Drone transport of vaccines is another growing phenomenon which can save lives. We should note that delivering vaccines in some parts of the world is a major challenge due to weather conditions, poor road access, and political conflicts. Drones can deliver vaccines to hard-to-reach areas. Interestingly, Joy Nowai from Vanuatu became the first child to receive vaccine delivery via an unmanned aerial vehicle. The drone covered almost 40 kilometers stretching across difficult terrain. In Vanuatu alone, 20% of children have no access to vaccines due to poor infrastructure. However, experts must consider payload capacities and temperature windows. As vaccines must be carried within temperatures of 2 and 8 C, ice packs, which are a common method for cooling medical products, can be too heavy for typical drones. Thus, experts must focus on designing containers with efficient insulation, which can maintain specific temperatures to preserve medical supplies (Blount, 2018).
- Drone transport for health care products and medical supplies: Drone transport can facilitate health care worldwide. From snake antivenom medicines to HIV drugs, drone transport can improve medical supply delivery. For instance, delivery of rabies vaccines can save lives in Tanzania and the rest of the world. Data shows that in Tanzania, females, and children are exposed at higher risk, with females having the lowest rates of full Post-Exposure Prophylaxis vaccinations (De Nardo et al., 2018). Drones can also be employed in the delivery of equipment, such as IV tubes and syringes, as well as the delivery of health care products, such as sanitary products for menstruation, birth control, and pregnancy tests.
While drone transport of microbes, laboratory specimens, medical supplies, vaccines, and donors is fundamental, telemedicine is another phenomenon growing in popularity. Drones can be employed in telemedicine (e.g., remote diagnosis of patients), specifically in military regions, remote areas, and natural disasters (Rosser et al., 2018). Particularly, unmanned aerial vehicles can provide communication and telemonitoring of surgical procedures and treatments. Harnett and colleagues (2008) revealed that drones could provide a wireless communication system between a surgeon and a robot to perform telesurgery; with the operator being remotely from the patient (more than 100 meters away). Drones can be employed in emergency medicine as well; they can be used to deliver automated external defibrillators (AEDs) and portable ultrasound devices to patients in need, surpassing ambulance response times. Additionally, such robotic technology can provide mobility assistance to people, especially the elderly.
Interestingly, drones can be used for patient transport. Military research (Beebe & Gilbert) shows that with the rapid development of unmanned auricle vehicles, drones can be employed in combat missions, causality extraction, and evacuation. Yet, more research is needed regarding patient health and airspace regulations.Evidence shows that drone transport has numerous benefits across a wide range of settings and environments. From telemedicine to the transport of vaccines, robotic aerial systems can save lives. However, there are several barriers which may disrupt the successful implementation of drone transport within medical settings. Factors, such as high collision, patient safety, airspace regulations, and weather conditions must be considered. Note that drones face regulatory hurdles regarding size, speed, location, consent, and time. In the US, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is the main regulatory body; however, regulations fall behind the rapid advancements in technology and medical organizations are often forced to apply for exemptions from the current regulatory practices (Balasingam, 2017). Note that the majority of exemptions in the US, however, have been granted to industries, such as film and mining (around 5, 292 exemptions since 2016). In Europe, on the other hand, the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) focuses on strict regulations regarding conflict zones, pollution, privacy, aviation, and certification.
Drone transport in medical settings raises additional challenges related to various technical and safety issues. From battery life to operator training, experts must ensure patient and environmental safety. When it comes to drone transport of microbes in blood and sputum laboratory specimens, temperature ranges, labeling, and specimen-specific validation should be considered (Amukele et al., 2016). Given the urgent nature of medical applications, experts have no control over time and location, which also challenges research and practice. Therefore, a multidisciplinary approach is fundamental to facilitate drone transport within medical settings and improve patient well-being worldwide.Unmanned aerial vehicles or drones have immense applications in medical settings, film, agriculture, surveillance, and leisure. With novel communication systems and attractive designs, drone use within medical settings is increasing across the globe. Drones can be used to deliver medical supplies, health products, vaccines, drugs, equipment, blood, organ transplants, and even patients. More and more countries suggest implementing drone technology into medical and emergency settings, as well as improving aviation and privacy regulations.
When it comes to drone transport of microbes in blood and sputum laboratory specimens, drones can ensure safe delivery, which can facilitate diagnoses and decision-making. Drones can be highly beneficial in rural regions with poor road access, mountainous terrain, and hazardous areas. In the end, drones are more than a hobby or a photography tool. Unmanned aerial and ground-based systems are tech game-changers, which can improve health care practices and patient well-being worldwide. Drones can save lives.
- Amukele, T., Street, J., Carroll, K., Miller, H., & Zhang, S. (2016). Drone Transport of Microbes in Blood and Sputum Laboratory Specimens. Journal of Clinical Microbiology, 54 (10), p. 2622-2625.
- Amukele, T., Ness, P., Tobian, A., Boyd, J., & Street, J. (2016). Drone transportation of blood products.
- Balasingam, M. (2017). Drones in medicine—The rise of the machines. The International Journal of Clinical Practice.
- Beebe, M., Gilbert, G. (2010). Robotics and Unmanned Systems – “Game Changers” for Combat Medical Missions.
- Blount, W. (2018). Temperature Controlled Transport of Vaccines by Drone In Developing Countries.
- De Nardo, P., Gentilotti, E., Vairo, F., Nguhuni, B., Chaula, Z., Nicastri, E., Ismail, A., & Ippolito, G. (2018). A retrospective evaluation of bites at risk of rabies transmission across 7 years: The need to improve surveillance and reporting systems for rabies elimination. PLOS One, 13 (7).
- Harnett, B., Doarn, C., Rosen, J., Hannaford, B., & Broderick, T. (2008). Evaluation of unmanned airborne vehicles and mobile robotic telesurgery in an extreme environment. Telemedicine Journal and e-Health, 14 (6), p.539-544.
- Rosser, J., Vignesh, V., Terwilliger, B., & Parker, B. (2018). Surgical and Medical Applications of Drones: A Comprehensive Review. JSLS, 22 (3).
- Scalea, J., Restaino, S., Scassero, M., Blankenship, G., Bartlett, S., & Wereley, N. (2018). An Initial Investigation of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) and Real-Time Organ Status Measurement for Transporting Human Organs. IEEE Journal of Translational Engineering in Health and Medicine.