Drones in healthcare: The ‘next big thing’ for care delivery

drones in healthcare

Healthcare providers globally are looking at ways to use drones in healthcare for medical missions, with several countries beginning to use them for delivering biologicals such as serums, blood, virus culture, vaccines, and organs, which is saving lives. In this article, we’ll explore four major ways drones are being used in healthcare, and what’s driving this med-tech revolution.

Four major ways drones in healthcare are changing the face of care delivery

1. Delivering vaccines

Drones in healthcare can make vaccinations and medications more accessible and convenient, even in distant places and disaster-prone areas. This will eventually lead to faster vaccine administration, especially in time-sensitive situations like the pandemic. 

Canada and the US

Meanwhile, drone startups Draganfly, located in Saskatoon, Canada, and Volansi, based in San Francisco, are among those now operating drones with vaccine delivery agreements in North America. Draganfly, in collaboration with Coldchain Technology Services, a healthcare supply chain management company, has begun testing flights carrying coronavirus vaccines in Texas. 

On the other hand, Volansi has been operating drones carrying various chilled pharmaceuticals and vaccines for Merck in North Carolina, since last October. Zipline, a medical product delivery company based in the US, has also utilized drones in healthcare to carry COVID-19 vaccines and blood for transfusions in Ghana and Rwanda.

India

Skye Air, a drone company, for example, is conducting a trial to distribute COVID-19 vaccines in the Indian state of Telangana. As part of the ‘Medicines in the Sky’ project, the drones carry supplies bundled in temperature-controlled boxes within a 12 km range in around 18 minutes.

It is conducting the experiments in collaboration with Dunzo Digital, a Google-backed hyper-local on-demand delivery service firm. This year, India’s Ministry of Civil Aviation modified drone flight regulations, granting the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) conditional exemption from national drone regulations.

2. Transporting time-critical and life-saving medical supplies

Keeping in mind the short time frame of getting certain medical samples from the patient to the laboratory, before they become invalid, and also certain remote locations that do not have access to such amenities, clinicians have begun using drones in healthcare to transport medical samples. Meanwhile, drones are also being used to transport urgent supplies such as blood, to the site of action.

The US

VillageReach, a global non-profit based in Seattle, has partnered with Matter Net, a drone startup based in Silicon Valley that focuses on autonomous transportation. The present trial effort involves transferring blood samples from rural community hospitals to large hospitals with better laboratory facilities.

China

EHang, a Chinese drone startup, recently signed a contract with Lung Biotechnology PBC in the United States for the development of up to 1,000 units of its 184 drone, the world’s first autonomous drone capable of transporting a human. The goal is to automate the delivery of donated organs to people across the country in times of necessity.

Germany

On the other hand, Wingcopter, a German aerospace company, has used drones in healthcare to transport blood samples across a distance of 26 km, in Germany. The average flight time of the drones was 18 minutes, which was nearly twice as fast as ground-based transportation.

The UAE

Abu Dhabi’s Department of Health (DoH) is working on a medical drone network that will span the entire city and deliver medical samples and supplies — a first of its kind.

3. Acting as first responders

Drones in healthcare are also being used to assist first responders on-site, by quickly carrying medication, blood transfusions, or emergency medical equipment like defibrillators to the scene of an accident.

A recent European Heart Journal study looked into the use of drones to carry automated external defibrillators (AEDs) to help save out-of-hospital cardiac arrest (OHCA) patients. As per the study, which was released in August 2021, “AEDs can be conveyed by drones to real-life cases of OHCA with a successful AED delivery rate of 92 %. In cases where the drone arrived first, there was a time advantage over emergency medical personnel.”

Sweden

In December 2021, it was also announced that, for the first time in medical history, an autonomous drone assisted in saving the life of a man who suffered from an OHCA, in Sweden. According to the press release, “a 71-year-old man was shoveling snow in his driveway when he suffered an out-of-hospital cardiac arrest (OHCA) […and thanks to the…] swift delivery of an Automated External Defibrillator (AED), lifesaving measures through defibrillation could be initiated before the ambulance arrived, and his life was saved.”

The Netherlands

The Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, for example, has also built an Ambulance Drone as a prototype that incorporates a cardiac defibrillator, a 2-way communication radio, and video into the drone. In the event of a cardiac arrest, the emergency services would dispatch the drone to the patient, and onlookers would be trained on how to administer CPR and begin using the defibrillator until the emergency services arrived to take over.

4. Aiding disease control

Drones in healthcare are also being increasingly utilized to predict, prevent, and investigate disease outbreaks.

The UK, Philippines, and Malaysia

Recently, drones in healthcare have been proposed as a means of mosquito control. With mosquitoes transmitting diseases ranging from malaria to the Zika virus, conventional techniques of mosquito-borne disease prevention remain ineffective.

In this light, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine launched a program to track the growth of malaria in the Philippines and Malaysia, a few years ago. The Monkeybar project involved installing thermal cameras on drones and tracking macaques to monitor transmission from animals to people. These drones in healthcare have also aided in the mapping of places and land types, as well as examining how different habitats affect the dispersion of individuals and which mosquitoes and macaques contribute to infection risk. 

Australia

The University of South Australia has collaborated with Draganfly Inc to build Pandemic Drones, which will utilize temperature sensors and computer vision to detect contagious immunology and respiratory disorders. The new drones will be able to remotely monitor temperature, heart rate, and respiratory rate, as well as identify coughing and sneezing from up to 10m away. This will allow researchers to monitor public spaces as well as crowded areas such as airports and healthcare facilities, giving them an accurate picture of the spread of the virus.

Looking to the future

Though the possibilities are endless, regulatory bodies need a closer look at drone technology’s feasibility, scalability, and efficiency, as well as reconciling these characteristics with the most important aspects of healthcare: patient safety, privacy, and autonomy. Drones may indeed alter the future of healthcare delivery if developers can find a method to balance these delicate facets.

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