US Hospital Trials Medicine Delivery By Drone

Could drones be the next step in disrupted healthcare?

Few things require such urgent delivery as medical supplies. Adequate provision of medicines and medical equipment to hospitals can be a matter of life and death for patients, particularly in trauma centres and emergency care. Hospitals typically rely on couriers to deliver medical supplies, but this is expensive – and can waste time if the driver gets stuck in traffic. As with many last mile delivery dilemmas, this territory is ripe for disruption from drones. One US hospital has teamed up with drone delivery company Matternet to explore this potential.

Care delivered by air

Even when medical supplies aren’t being sent from different locations around a town or city, their delivery can still provide a logistical challenge. Many hospitals and care institutions are spread out over large sites, encompassing a range of different buildings and campuses. This is the case for North Carolina healthcare provider WakeMed Health & Hospitals, which recently trialled the drone delivery of medical packages across two of its hospital sites. Although blood and other medical samples were simulated in the trial by phials of water, this flight was the first time that a medical delivery has been made by drone in the United States.

Weighing in at around 10kg, and capable of carrying 2kg of load, Matternet’s drones can fly for about 25 minutes on one single battery charge. While 25 minutes might not get you very far in rush hour traffic, the direct nature of a drone’s route through the air gives it incredible range. This could be more than enough for the drone to navigate between a hospital and laboratory – to despatch samples for urgent analysis, for example – or to deliver medicines around a healthcare site. Although couriers might be a tried and tested method of moving items around medical locations, it is clear that drones can potentially offer a faster and even more efficient solution.

Just what the doctor ordered?

As with any conversation around Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), medical delivery by drone brings significant safety and privacy concerns. Drones such as those produced by Matternet are autonomous, meaning that they can fly preprogrammed routes without any human intervention. Although human pilots initiate the flight and can step in at any time, the drone is perfectly capable of flying independently. This raises similar ethical questions as those surrounding driverless cars – namely, what kinds of decisions should a UAV make in an emergency? In the event that something goes wrong when the drone is flying over highly populated areas – a current sticking point in drone regulation – what will it be programmed to do?

As for privacy, Matternet was keen to emphasise that the drones used in the US medical trial do not have cameras on board. This highlights another serious doubt hanging over the heads of aviation regulators – to what extent can people’s rights really be protected if autonomous robots are permitted to fly over them? The way we think about personal space will have to be completely redefined if drones with surveillance capabilities are allowed to fly above our towns and cities.

Drones – a medical history

This being said, drones have a proven track record in solving delivery problems. They have already been used in Rwanda for blood, medicine and vaccine delivery to remote communities – in fact, a recent trial in one area was so successful that it is set to be launched across the whole of the country. In Switzerland, Matternet has set up a network of medical delivery drones across Swiss cities which autonomously load, launch and land themselves. The systems allow hospitals to save a significant 20 to 50 per cent on delivery costs, whilst slashing the time it takes for medical supplies to reach their destination.

Successful drone programmes such as these prove that these machines are no longer merely a novel kind of technology, but serious pieces of equipment that we will be seeing a lot more of in future. The ability to transport items quickly, cheaply, and – crucially – safely through the air has huge commercial implications. This is something to be excited about whether you’re waiting for a life saving blood transfusion or simply the delivery of your evening takeaway.

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