In a few short years, the use of drones in healthcare has gone from a speculative side show to a firm reality. Since drone technology is available to the masses and the FAA instituted drone regulations in 2016, it’s now simply a matter of inventing new use cases and applying these tools to deliver time critical and life-saving resources.
While there are a myriad of uses for drones in rescue scenarios (think drones dropping life preservers to drowning surfers), their applications in actual healthcare delivery have so far been more limited.
Some of the limitations have been due to the technology. Although improvements continue to be made, payload and battery life remain limiting factors to many situations. While FAA regulations have been established, they are fairly restrictive and most—if not all—applications would require a waiver of one or more of these restrictions such as the ability to fly beyond the line of sight, fly over people, or fly at night. Here are three current use cases that have been developed for drones in healthcare.
1. The Telemedicine Pack
Dr. Italo Subbarao and Dr. Guy Paul Cooper from Carey University Medical School have developed a telemedicine pack that can be delivered by drone to provide medical services to remote populations. This drone is an octo-copter and can carry about 20 lbs and fly up to 40 mph. It would be summoned to fly to a GPS point near the victim. It can carry a medical “suitcase” that has variable equipment depending on need, such as medical supplies for trauma including inflatable splints, dressings, clotting sponges, tourniquets, etc.
The pack contains a video connection to a medical provider who can direct the bystander to render first aid to the victim. Before actual clinical use can occur, a number of FAA regulations will need to be waived or modified when it becomes clear that drones can safely share airspace even in our busiest cities.
2. Rapid AED Deployment
Defibrillators are in malls, airports, and wherever large crowds of people gather. But what about more remote locations such as golf courses, parks, and rural America? AED delivery to a victim of cardiac arrest is possible with an AED drone developed at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands in 2014. With the touch of an app or a text, an AED could be summoned and on the scene very quickly. They claim that they can reach a victim within 7.4 square miles within 1 minute.
A research letter published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in June, demonstrated a median response time reduction of 16 minutes over standard EMS response times in simulated cardiac arrest around Stockholm, Sweden. While this has been developed, it’s practical use will also require FAA waivers in the United States.
3. Medical Supply Delivery
Delivery of medical supplies, including vaccines, medications, and blood products, are another compelling drone use case. Zipline currently delivers blood products and medical supplies in Rwanda. Initiated by a SMS text and using a fixed wing drone, their delivery network allows them to rapidly deliver supplies to hard-to-reach areas. Their drone allows delivery up to 75 km away and in most weather conditions, including high winds and rain. Their drones are limited to 1.5 kg of payload, but their network has an average fulfillment time of 30 minutes and the capacity to do 500 deliveries daily, according to their website. Zipline is also trialing delivery in the US to remote island populations in Washington State and the Chesapeake Bay.