How Medical Drones are Assisting People in Need
By: Kathleen Colduvell RN, BSN, BA, CBC
The use of drones is on the rise. Merriam-Webster defines a drone as "an unmanned aircraft or ship guided by remote control or onboard computers."
Medical drones are the future of disaster relief, providing much-needed help to isolated areas. Nurses, doctors, surgeons, blood bank operators, and other healthcare and nursing professionals are beginning to encounter drone-based services in many settings.
Drone In Action
Drones have been successfully used in Rwanda, Taiwan, Nepal, and other countries to reach remote villages and hospitals. Most recently, California-based Zipline will bring its drone delivery program to rural communities in Maryland, Nevada, and Washington, including some Native American reservations.
Zipline originally partnered with five hospitals in Rwanda to deliver life-saving medical supplies, including blood products, and the hope is to enable this technology for all of the country’s hospitals.
Before the use of medical drones, it would take an average of four hours to make an emergency delivery to a hospital. Drones are able to make the same deliveries in approximately 15 minutes.
The ultimate goal is to make up tp 150 deliveries per day throughout Rwanda – this will be revolutionary, especially for pregnant women, since postpartum hemorrhage is the leading cause of death in Rwanda for that demographic.
Currently, Zipline’s electric drones are able to fly up to 75 miles and carry upwards of three pounds of blood or medicine. Hospitals using this technology order the medicine or blood via text message, and the product is delivered via a disposable parachute launched from the drone.
The unmanned planes are navigated using cellular networks and GPS, and can make deliveries within 30 minutes.
Zipline is currently working with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on three projects in the U.S. One project would partner Zipline with a regional blood bank in Washington State to create a plan to distribute blood to hospitals and clinics after natural disasters.
Another project uses drone delivery of medications in conjunction with telemedicine appointments in rural Maryland. Finally, Zipline and their drones would link large healthcare centers to hospitals and tribal clinics near Reno, Nevada.
Malawai, Drones, and HIV
Matternet, another US-based tech company, partnered with UNICEF to deliver HIV testing kits to clinics and hospitals throughout Malawi. According to UNICEF, approximately 10% of Malawians have HIV, which is currently one of the highest rates of infection in the world.
Drones, capable of carrying 250 tests, pick up testing kits from clinics throughout Malawi and then make laboratory deliveries. Despite an overwhelming percentage of HIV+ patients, there are currently only eight labs able to run these tests.
In Malawi, HIV medications are not provided until there is a positive test result. Without the use of drones, it can take almost two months for results to be returned – this time frame delays medical treatment in newborns as well as newly infected adults.
UNICEF predicts that drones will be more cost-effective than the current mode of transportation and will speed the delivery of life-saving medications.
While drones have only recently been more widely accepted in the medical community, they were previously used to deliver small aid packages following the Haitian earthquake in 2012.
Doctors Without Borders also used them to transport TB test samples from a remote village in Papua New Guinea. Furthermore, drones have successfully delivered condoms and birth control to women throughout Ghana.
Delivery of medical supplies and blood products is just the tip of the iceberg. Amazon Prime Air is pioneering drone delivery of other goods. The unmanned aerial vehicles are able to transport items as heavy as five pounds to locations up to 30 minutes away.
Private trials have been run in the United Kingdom and there are multiple development centers in the United States, Israel, the United Kingdom, and Austria. According to a NY Times interview, in December 2016, the first Amazon drone successfully delivered goods to a home in Cambridgeshire, England.
The implications of drone delivery systems are vast and truly unknown. Drones have the potential to revolutionize medical care, and this is only the beginning.