MEDICAL
DELIVERY
DRONES

February 22, 2021

Pioneering medical services with drone technology

One of the unintended benefits of the Covid-19 pandemic has been the mass adoption and acceleration of technology and remote contactless services across multiple sector.

If we consider pre-Covid 19, many innovations and services were in stealth mode or pilot phase with major commercial revenue aspirations years away, but 2020 has changed all of that. Now, consumers and businesses understand the value of remote services and delivery – what was once considered impractical now is suddenly a market opportunity.

Medical Delivery

The most urgent and practical applications, in the field of remote delivery especially during this Covid-19 period, are in the field of medical delivery, and particularly to underserved and isolated communities. With the prospect of a vaccine edging closer, the next question is what role, drones will play in the delivery in the months and years to come. In what is likely to be one of the greatest logistical challenges ever undertaken, the correct and successful use of delivering vaccines by drone will in all likelihood quash the estimated 2025 project of $339m, which was based on a compounded annual growth rate of 24.7%. (World Economic Forum).

With blood delivery programmes being successfully implemented in Africa already, the future of medical delivery across the continent and the globe is increasingly drone driven. The challenge therefore in the future is not what can drones be used for, but what should drones not be used for in a medical capacity. Several of the most promising future applications include emergency medicine, organ transport, epidemiological tracking (rapid testing of infectious disease outbreaks and modelling).

Overcoming Costs and New Applications to consider

Much of the challenges surrounding mass adoption and scaling of drone delivery is economics and the bias towards existing supply chain infrastructure. It was a question, which the Lancet Medical Journal analysed when they compared delivery programmes using motorcycles and UAVs during the height of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Their conclusion was that drones become more cost effective the longer the range (100km). However, what is more important is that they created a benchmark for comparison, which is useful for medical and government authorities when evaluating new proposals. (Amukele, T).

The costs of drone operations have decreased dramatically since the height of the Ebola crisis in 2015 due to innovations in design and growth in market size, while arguably road transport costs and risks associated with transporting on poor roads will remain if not increase. While swarms of UAVs delivering vaccines are unlikely in the near future; the likelihood of them being used to deliver vaccines in rural areas is possible with test kits already being distributed in Ghana. Moreover, in a comparative computational study, drone delivery increased vaccine availability and decreased costs in all sensitivity analyses ($0.05 to $0.21 per dose administered), proving that drones are increasingly more cost effective, safer and efficient if used frequently enough to overcome set up costs. (Poljak M, Sterbenc A).

On Board Field Testing

One of the most exciting medical applications for drones currently is in the field of microbiology and epidemiology, which is vital in the fight against future epidemics that originate in isolated areas, particularly in Africa. Recent and continued outbreaks of Ebola in West and central Africa (DRC) have exposed complications in diagnosis and infectious disease control. To work around transportation risks from outbreak zones, researchers have a developed a ‘lab-on-a-drone’, which has demonstrated remarkable results.

The entire ‘lab-on-a drone’ hardware can be produced at a price of $50 and, because it is compatible with consumer-class quadcopter drones, its implementation in less developed economies and regions is feasible. The testing procedure, completed in flight, was not affected by the drone’s orientation even if the tilt angle was increased up to 60 degrees, which allows major flight maneuvers in bad weather. (Poljak M, Sterbenc A).

HOW IT WORKS

In simple terms, the drone’s RPM motors are replaced with 3 centrifuge motors. A centrifuge is the device that labs use to spin the sample to a high enough speed to separate proteins and viruses in the sample. What’s really surprising is that over a short flight time (20 minutes), the process was completed and able to amplify two DNA samples. (Poljak M, Sterbenc A).

From testing for
infectious diseases
to modelling and
surveillance

From testing for an outbreak to modelling and surveillance, drones equipped with thermal sensors or being simply used to collect test samples can provide authorities with up to date georeferenced data on the spread and concentrations of infectious diseases. In Sweden, scientists proposed that using a network of drones collecting tests from a city of 100,000 inhabitants even every 30 days, as opposed to four days, would help flatten the spread of a virus. (Sedov L, Krasnochub A, Polishchuk V(2020) Modeling quarantine during epidemics andmass-testing using drones).

Emergency Medicine
& Organ Transport

Fatalities by heart attacks in the developed and increasingly the developing world continue to be a major healthcare challenge, and your chances of surviving an attack out of hospital is only 10%. The challenge is that lifesaving defibrillators are not available especially when 75% of heart attacks take place at home. In a recent theoretical study of 53 000 heart attacks in Canada, researchers hypothesized that 81 bases and 100 drones would reduce historic response times by 6 minutes in urban areas and by over 10 minutes in rural areas. In another study in Sweden, an 8-bladed octocopter equipped with a defibrillator arrived earlier on all 18 pilot cases (the average time improvement was 16 minutes across the study). In another pilot programme involving organ transport resulted in the transportation of a kidney that was successfully transplanted. The big benefit here is that the current method of organ transport involves multiple stakeholders, by using drones we are able to reduce complexity and do it safely with no damage to samples and organs due to temperature reduction. (Poljak M, Sterbenc A).

In summary, for many years, researchers, scientists and drone proponents have believed that drones can make a significant impact on global healthcare. While the current Covid -19 pandemic has stretched resources, it has also exposed the shortcomings of healthcare systems globally. Critically, we are seeing a willingness and a greater focus on investment and scaling up of smart AI driven tech, remote technologies and more, which are emerging from the periphery to the center of medical and economic discourse. It’s this publicity and growing practicality and acceptance, which will help drive the sector forward.

References:

Use of drones in clinical microbiology and infectious diseases: current status, challenges and barriers, Clinical Microbiology and Infection, Poljak M, Sterbenc A
https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cmi.2019.09.014

The Economics of Medical Drones, Timothy Amukele
https://www.thelancet.com/journals/langlo/article/PIIS2214-109X(19)30494-2/fulltext)

How drones could change the future of healthcare delivery, World Economic Forum
https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/05/medical-drone-delivery-india-africa-modernize-last-mile/)

Modeling quarantine during epidemics and mass-testing using drones, Sedov L, Krasnochub A, Polishchuk V(2020)
https://www.researchgate.net/publication/3424 28128_Modeling_quarantine_during_epidemics_and_mass- testing_using_drones

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