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Flying high: A look at medical delivery drones

By Kevin Spurgaitis

Whenever someone says the word “drone,” it often brings to mind the latest remote-controlled, airborne toys, or unmanned flying systems for military and commercial purposes. But it might be time to think beyond traditional application and consider the potentially transformational application taking off in health care.

Today, the fast, autonomous delivery of medicines and medical supplies by unmanned aircraft systems, (UAS) is revolutionizing the treatment and prevention of life-threatening, communicable diseases in areas where infrastructure damage prevents ground or traditional air transport. Even smaller, indoor drones are flying off the shelves to deliver vaccines, antibiotics and treatments to a patient’s bedside or immediately transport blood drawn by a local technician directly to the lab. 

Quick and nimble
In essence, real-time 3D mapping combined and AI algorithms allow drones to make conclusions about what they see and avoid objects unseen to human pilots. They are equipped with three hundred and sixty degree obstacle avoidance that gives them full coverage data of their surroundings, so that they can remain agile. Their motion prediction capabilities help map out intelligent paths around obstacles—the necessary twists and nuances—a reliable, unmanned way to avoid some of the white-knuckle flying on the part of humans in high-stress, delicate situations.

A twenty-thousand-foot perspective
However invaluable these tools may seem, there are still multiple challenges preventing the use of UAS at full throttle, so to speak. Chief among them are the infancy of related technology, the high costs associated with the larger systems and, of course, the ongoing risk of crashes.

But researchers continue to explore ways to capitalize on the shorter periods of time that drones theoretically take to reach patients who are in remote areas—they are amazing first responders to victims in danger and require critical medical attention. And, within hospital walls and between medical buildings and clinics, they have been shown to decrease reliance on people when there is a need to cost-efficiently carry medicine and supplies to frailer adults who prefer to age in place. Other overhead missions have shown how drones can ferry aid like fresh water, bandages and rescue equipment during natural disasters. In the Amazon rainforest, human-controlled, fixed-wing helicopters, for example, fly every two days to take vaccines, snakebite serum and other medical supplies to isolated villages.

Pie in the sky ideas?
Although talk involving health-care-related drones has revolved around health care delivery to remote areas, researchers are carefully looking into how to better transport blood samples and even organs from floor to floor, or building to building—instead of making deliveries by foot or through the more traditional pneumatic tube systems. This can be especially helpful for hospitals in the middle of an outbreak or during an expansion or repair phase (costs of expanding traditional pneumatic tube systems are quite high). According to experts, as long as waypoints are programmed for its trajectory, a compact drone can pick up and deliver supplies to room or building X at a set time or on demand. In fact, more recently, an unmanned drone carried a pair of lungs 1.5 kilometres in Toronto in what University Health Network said was the world’s first delivery of its kind. 

While some naturally fear that drones will lead to job loss in the sector, UAS planners foresee that drones will support currently short-staffed nursing and physician teams—after all, their time needs to be freed up to provide higher levels of care.  It is easy, with a smart phone app, nurses and other professionals can ideally call for what they require and request automatic delivery, (with direct billing), to their location….No questions asked. 

Rather than valued health professionals, technicians and logistics staff will manage the drones to make certain products are available and that the right package arrives to the right location—at the right temperature. 

Short-term hurdles
Nevertheless, drones rely on GPS signals and radio frequencies, which are rather limited indoors. While bluetooth technology may offer a partial solution, researchers also need to fully automate and teach drones to better understand their environment and remember where they are exactly.

There is the weight of drones, too. The more intelligent the UAS, the larger and more expensive it is, typically speaking. Accordingly, systems need to be smaller in size to both keep them nimble and their costs down. And, of course, the battery life—needed to get from point A to point B—remains somewhat of a concern. Regulation of drones, in the form of national rules and regional laws, should encourage safe and responsible operations, while promoting innovation. Drone innovation depends on forward-looking policies, according to the Consumer Technology Association (CTA).

As drone technology evolves and more people operate the multipurpose flyers, governments and their policies simply need to focus on keeping up. “The possibilities for drones are endless, but we need the policies to match,” CTA Vice President of Technology Policy, Douglas Johnson, who leads drone policy initiatives, said earlier this year. 

Coming to air space near you
In this vibrant new age of AI, the use of autonomous drones is taking off and is expected to increase in importance as a public health tool. They will continue to support frontline health care workers, as they deliver equipment and medicines to remote and underserved communities and keep them better connected. 

So, will they save money? The jury is still out. Will they save time? Most definitely. And above all else, will they save lives? Undeniably.

Kevin Spurgaitis is a drone optimistic Toronto-based writer interested in ethics and public health issues.

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