A growing role for drones in healthcare

Drone use for industrial and commercial purposes is quite well known, but unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) are increasingly leveraged in healthcare. Drones make it possible to deliver blood, vaccines, and other medical supplies to rural areas or remote locations, provide relief to victims who need immediate medical attention, facilitate medicine transportation within hospitals or clinics, and even support the home treatment of elderly patients. These UAS applications contribute to improve access to essential healthcare assistance, enhance quality of service, and help save money.

Let us consider some possible use cases. First area where drones can be successfully introduced is medical supply delivery. Extensive research has already been completed, and pilot experiments have been conducted both in emergency situations (ie. UAS bringing medical equipment and water to an isolated village after a natural disaster) and ordinary occurrences (ie. UAS delivering medicines and test kits to underserviced towns).

Although much of the attention relates to drone use in hard-to-reach locations, UAS can also be beneficial inside hospitals. Some large facilities with multiple buildings and departments have implemented pneumatic tube systems to transport blood samples and medications from floor to floor or building to building, but most of them are still managing this by foot. Small drones could support hospital staff in delivering medicines and equipment to a specific ward or room at a certain time of the day, leaving nurses and operators free to spend more time with patients and focus on other value-added tasks.

And why not using drones to better assist the growing senior population? Access to proper assistance is quite a major problem for elderly people around the world – one that has been exacerbated during the recent pandemic. In the US, 1 in 4 people do not have a primary care physician at hand, so they can’t receive regular care. Healthcare providers are now offering remote monitoring devices or virtual visits, but they still need patients to have high speed internet connectivity and be able to leave their home or be supported when they are required to get test kits, supplies, and medications.

Researchers at the University of Cincinnati have recently unveiled an innovative telehealth drone to solve this specific issue. It is a semi-autonomous prototype that can be dispatched right to people’s homes; it is big enough to carry a waterproof box with medicines or medical supplies, but small enough to maneuver the tight confines of a home using dedicated navigational algorithms. Moreover, it features a camera and a display screen to let patients engage in a conversation with their caregiver, and it can be scheduled to collect lab tests and bring them back to the hospital.

Drones are also being piloted to support India’s Universal Immunization Program. One of the largest in the world, the program is challenged by vaccine logistics and struggle to reach its objective of reaching over 26 million infants and 30 million pregnant women annually. In the immunization supply chain, the ‘last mile’ is particularly difficult, since in some of India’s hilly states, treacherous terrains and tribal populations, vaccines are still transported by health workers on foot, boats, motorbike and even mules from the cold chain point – which might take hours to reach the patient site.

Drones are being used to carry vaccines in Ghana, delivering about 11,000 doses within three days of arriving in the country, representing 13% of the total vaccines administered in that period in the country. If successful and scaled, UAS could strengthen the Universal Immunization Program of India and support ongoing efforts to control mortalities and morbidities pandemic. “The systems put in place in the short term to support drone delivery of vaccines can become important health care infrastructure in the long term, delivering a variety of life saving goods”, writes Ruma Bhargava from World Economic Forum, C4IR India.

As with every industry interested in implementing UAS, there are challenges to overcome ranging from payload capacity to battery life and, of course, regulations. As the barriers start to come down, the healthcare industry will be increasingly interested in UAS and take advantage from the many benefits drones can provide, starting with delivery services up to more complex applications in the next five to 10 years.

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