Commercial drone usage often gets a bad rap. We often associate it with militarization or tech behemoths automating away their workforce. And up close, commercial drone use is just a bit…strange. You can imagine the cultural aversion to the idea of walking outside between work meetings to accept your groceries from a mini helicopter covered with cameras and perhaps some fancy wayfinding laser modifications. Needless to say, I've been under the impression that we have some time before drones become a staple of day-to-day living.
But that time's almost up—or at least it seems to be in health care.
Over the last year, there has been a sharp uptick in drone usage in western medicine. I first noticed this last year when Novant Health became the first U.S. health system to receive permission from the US Federal Aviation Administration to use drones to deliver PPE, medication, and other supplies amidst the first wave of Covid-19. This was accomplished through a partnership with Zipline, a U.S. medical drone delivery start-up.
By the time the start-up had partnered with Novant Health, Zipline had already made headlines for using drones to transport blood products to hospitals in rural Rwanda—a much faster alternative than traditional transportation by road. This trend has continued this trend into 2021, where Zipline is now using drones to deliver Covid-19 vaccines in Ghana.
Since then, more and more articles have appeared from different countries, each showcasing similar modern medical advancements that—in one capacity or another—greatly increase efficiency. What has surprised me the most is that this area is no longer dominated by start-up companies focused on global public health.
Western governments and large incumbent health systems are now sponsoring pilots or scaling drone models that aim to improve the quadruple aim of their local populations. The benefits of scaled drone usage are cited to be some combination of the following:
- Reducing carbon footprint/traffic congestion
- Filling gaps or reducing costs in the health care supply chain, namely 'last-mile delivery'
- Responding to emergencies more quickly
- Filling in for staff shortages
- Preventing unnecessary in-person utilization
Where there is early movement
In a world where tech innovations are proliferating more rapidly than ever and drone use is increasingly getting time in the media, it's worth capturing what the emerging use cases are for drones in health care and success stories thus far. Here are some of the unique models our international research team is keeping an eye on:
- Greifswald University Medical Center in Germany partnered with Wingcopter to test delivery of blood samples via drone. The program's aim is to extend access to diagnostic services across some of Germany's most rural areas, with a long-term goal of integrating drone coverage into rescue chain and emergency medical transportation.
- The University of Maryland in the U.S. used a GE AiRXOS to fly a human kidney 2.6 miles from one hospital to another, leading to a successful kidney transplant.
- Scientists at Sweden's Karolinska Institute partnered with Swedish national emergency operator SOS Alarm, Västra Götaland county, and drone operator Everdrone AB to test a defibrillator drone delivery service for those experiencing out-of-hospital cardiac arrests.
- Researchers at the University of Cincinnati in the U.S. invented a telehealth drone that can be dispatched to a patient's home. It's large enough to carry medical cargo but small enough to navigate the interior of a home comfortably (yes, it actually flies inside the house). It also has cameras and display screens, as well as a waterproof box to deliver supplies or collect lab tests.
- The Isle of Wight NHS Trust in the U.K. and its partner Apian just launched a three-month trial to test drone delivery of chemotherapy drugs to the home. If successful, it's believed this would be the first hospital in the world to deliver chemotherapy drugs by drone. A study analysis showed that 64% of the time, the drone beat the ambulance to the patient by two minutes. The trust recently received grant funding to test this model.
- Lastly, in the farthest sweeping plan we have seen, Abu Dhabi's Department of Health is testing an advanced drone network in partnership with the country's aviation authority, Abu Dhabi's SkyGo, and Matternet, a U.S.-based drone start-up. The network of 40 drone stations is expected to be established in 2022 and will transfer medical supplies, drugs, blood units, vaccines, and samples between laboratories, pharmacies, blood banks, and healthcare facilities across the entire city.