Humans have been toying with the idea of pilotless aerial vehicles for over a century now. From being lethal weapons used by the military to being toys for enthusiasts, drones (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles or UAVs) have come a long way. The last decade has seen an explosion of drone usage in various industries - from logistics to agriculture. Drones have found niche uses in aerial photography, construction, surveillance, disaster management, and logistics - to name a few.
Drones are also making their presence felt in the medical field. From delivering life-saving medicines and equipment to emergency services, healthcare systems around the world are integrating more and more drones into their systems. Drones have the potential to completely re-imagine the administration of medical care and even redefine medical infrastructure.
Medical Delivery Platforms
The most explored use of drones in medicine is as a delivery mechanism. Their fast response time, versatility, ability to traverse through hard to navigate terrain and climate makes them perfect as medical transport systems. Drones can deliver blood, medical supplies, emergency equipment, birth control, vaccines, medical samples, and even COVID-19 test kits.
Perhaps the most famous case of a medical drone delivery system is the one started by Zipline in 2016. In doing so, they became the first viable and sustainable commercial medical delivery drone operation in the world.
The company currently operates in Rwanda, Ghana, India, and is planning to expand its operations in the US. These drones have helped supply medicines, vaccines, and blood to remote parts of the country and helped save many lives in the process. Zipline's drones can carry up to 2 kg of payload. A catapult mechanism launches the drones. Once the drone reaches the predetermined location, it releases the payload and circles back to the base. These drones can travel around 150 Kilometres on a single charge.
While Zipline's primary focus is on delivering medical supplies, the aerial technology company EHang Holdings Limited is partnership with Lung Biotechnology PBS are developing a drone capable of helping with organ transplants. They have also developed the EHang 184 drone, which is the 'first electric passenger-grade autonomous aerial vehicle'. The ability to transport humans will be the pinnacle of UAV medical delivery.
Use in Emergency Medicine
Drones can deliver life jackets, first aid kits and life belts to people trapped in rivers. Drones can reach terrains that are inaccessible even to helicopters. But the scope of drones in emergency medicine is much more than transporting a life jacket or medicine. The real value of drones in an emergency is the time saved in reaching the patient or the victim when compared to traditional delivery mechanisms.
A study done in Salt Lake County, Utah showed that drones if stationed properly, reach 96% of the county's population in less than a minute. The traditional ambulances in the county could access only 4.3% of the county's population within a minute. Other studies also indicate that drones save a significant amount of time in reaching their target when compared to the ambulance service.
Another scenario of drones in emergency medicine is the deployment of drone-based Automated Emergency Defibrillator (AED) networks. Time is a crucial element in cardiac arrests. Getting the defibrillator to the patient using a drone is significantly faster than getting the patient to the hospital. TU Delft's Ambulance Drone has an inbuilt cardiac defibrillator. In the case of an emergency, the drone can reach the patient within minutes. It also has an inbuilt communication system using which doctors can guide bystanders using audio and video to perform CPR and use the defibrillator. By the time the emergency services reach the patient, bystanders can stabilize the patient, with the help of remote doctors.
When the pandemic hit, doctors had to rely on telemedicine to communicate, diagnose, or treat patients. Current telemedicine solutions are extremely limited to phone or video calls. But drones can revolutionize remote diagnosis and treatment. Drone equipped telemedicine can be a lifesaver in disaster management as well as for patients in remote areas. The HiRO (Health Integrated Rescue Operations) telemedicine drone helps doctors guide the first responders using a smart glass, to do basic first aid, and at times, even life-saving interventions. Once the drone reaches stranded or disaster-stricken patients using inbuilt GPS, the bystanders can immediately start communicating with remote doctors. The use of virtual and augmented reality can completely transform disaster medical care as doctors can guide first responders to do more complex interventions. Once they go commercial, HiRO expects to provide medical support for people affected by seasonal disasters like hurricanes. We can expect more startups to follow this telemedicine route in the coming years.
Drones and COVID 19
The COVID19 pandemic has stretched healthcare systems worldwide. Many have started to realize the crucial role drones can play in handling the unique challenges posed by Covid-19. For example, National Health Services (NHS) has started a trial of drones to deliver covid testing kits to hospitals. Another Covid related use of drones is the 'disinfecting drones' tested by the University of San Diego. These drones use UV light to disinfect surfaces by flying around a room.
Matternet is another major player in the medical drone industry. They have partnered with UPS (United Parcel Service of America) to develop a hospital delivery network using Mattenet's M2 drone. They are scaling up their supply chain operations to deal with COVID-19 emergency - this includes the delivery of lab samples, medicines, PPE kits, surgical masks, and any other COVID-related contact-free deliveries. Such innovations to deal with the unique challenges created by the pandemic can help catapult the medical drone industry to become an integral part of mainstream medicine.
Automated Transport and Intra-hospital delivery
Trends and predictions in the tech industry suggest that companies will be focusing more on automation in the coming years. Drones can add a new layer to this automation. Drones can help initiate a shift to home medical care by transporting automating medical equipment delivery from the hospital to the patient's home instead of keeping the patient at the hospital for lengthy periods, especially older patients. Inter-hospital medical equipment transport can also be made possible. For example, Denmark is experimenting with an inter-hospital drone delivery system. This project will use drones to transfer blood samples and equipment between different hospitals of the Danish healthcare system. Authorities are expecting more than USD 30 million in savings and a significant workload reduction on healthcare professionals.
Some have also theorized that anything that can be automated out of the hospital infrastructure should be. Drug and food delivery or even waste collection or laundry can be automated out of the hospitals. These support systems take up a significant footprint within hospitals. Using drones to automate these will save costs, and help future hospital infrastructure to be much more streamlined.
Regulations are generally the main challenge faced by the drone industry around the world, with regulatory authorities like the FAA (Federation of Aviation Administration) in the US coming up with strict guidelines. (In 2019 Flirtey became the first company in the US to conduct an FAA-approved drone delivery. They are expanding their operations to deliver other emergency medical services as well.) However, the Covid-19 pandemic has also resulted in a worldwide relaxation of policies regarding drone operations. India launched the Government Authorization for Relief Using Drones (GARUD) portal specifically to fast track drone clearances. The Indian Civil Aviation department is also supporting BVLOS trials (Beyond Visual Line of Sight - which will enable drone to cover far greater distances.). Similar relaxations in regulatory control are expected in other countries as well.
Maintaining the quality of medical samples is another major challenge. The biological samples (medicine, vaccine, blood) are sensitive to temperature, pressure, and humidity variations. Ideally, real-time monitoring of onboard conditions of the payload in a drone and post-flight quality check is a must. With proper regulations, industry standards, and more investments, the medical delivery drone industry will see explosive growth in the coming years.
A report published by Fior Markets predicts the global medical drone market to grow at CAGR of 27% during 2020-27 and is expected to worth $500 million. Others expect this figure to be closer to $1 billion.
In the not too distant future, every hospital may have a drone fleet catering to various needs: transportation of medicines, emergency response kits, and even patients or healthcare professionals. As drone delivery systems get more sophisticated, hospital infrastructure will also change. But all of this will be possible only with better regulations, better technology, public awareness, and public policy. Even though it is hard to predict the future or the efficiency of future technology, one thing is sure: drones will be an integral part of future healthcare.