Is There A Future For Drones In Healthcare?

The Medical Futurist
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The threat COVID has posed ever since it first appeared influenced how healthcare operates on many levels. It triggered a rapid expansion in health technology – some obvious, like the rise of telemedicine or at-home lab tests, others filled a much-needed immediate void. The demand for safe solutions inclined the development of robotic support in hospitals – and drones.

I must admit, I expected the rise of drone-based solutions years ago (and I wasn’t alone with my expectations). By now, we are just at the very beginning of using drones in healthcare. And still, even now, when COVID-19 clearly showed the necessity for them, drones don’t seem to break through and stay with us in the new normal.

In a UNICEF guidance note, the organisation identifies three basic types of potential use cases for drones:

(1) delivery and transportation; (2) aerial disinfection, and (3) public space monitoring. During the pandemic, we have seen examples for all three cases – and more. Let’s see what the options are for drones in the future.

Drones in delivery and transport of medical supplies

Drone delivery of medical supplies or even vaccines existed years before the pandemic. American startup Zipline was delivering such supplies in Rwanda already in 2016. Conducting the first round of drone test flight in 2018, WakeMed Health & Hospital in Raleigh, North Carolina, together with the North Carolina Department of Transportation’s Division of Aviation, sent drones “to carry simulated medical packages from Raleigh Medical Park, located across the street from the campus to the main tower at the hospital.” Not a long haul, but still, an important one, for drones in Rwanda fly easier in its less-regulated and less crowded airspace than those in the U.S.

Zipline remained active in Africa during COVID-19. More recently, they helped in the delivery of COVID vaccines in Ghana, where the company has been actively delivering medical supplies since 2019. By bringing 11,000 vaccines in a matter of days, the important batch quickly reached remote areas – places that otherwise were challenging to get to by means of traditional logistics. In 2020, the company also began service in the U.S., where they delivered PPEs and other supplies to a hospital in North Carolina. This was “the first time the FAA has allowed beyond-line-of-sight drone deliveries in the US.”

But Zipline isn’t the only company using drone delivery. German manufacturer Wingcopter has partnered with Japan’s All Nippon Airways to deliver medical supplies to the island communities of Japan. The goal of the trial project is to set up commercial drone flights by 2022. The trial was promising, decreasing patient waiting lines dramatically.

There’s little to know about the current state of the partnership between UPS and CVS on prescription medicine drone delivery. The two loudly announced a cooperation a year ago to provide the service in a large retirement centre in Florida. As the companies haven’t (yet) posted of any further collaboration, the project is probably discontinued.

A step further, Swedish company Everdrone built a drone system that delivers Automated External Defibrillators (AEDs) to the scene of cardiac arrests. The drones get to the scene before an ambulance can, and with the defibrillator, anyone could initiate life-saving measures until the ambulance arrives. This is already a step towards the future, and I do hope to see (much) more of such initiatives in practice.

Drones in aerial disinfection

Another field where drones could add substantial value is disinfection. Sanitising convention centers, entertainment or sports venues with safe disinfectants enables us to get back to our lives and enjoy the safety of clean surfaces. From hospitals to football stadiums, drones seemed invaluable – at least until research showed that there’s a certain amount of risk these public sprayings pose to both the environment and humans. After finding more friendly solutions, public spraying continued. Whether it’s really effective depends on a vast number of factors from the amount to distance, quantity, material, and so on.

AERAS, a drone company from Pittsburgh, U.S., recently got the green light from the FAA to use drones to disinfect venues, while another American company, Perpetual Motion, was the first to use drones to spray an EPA-approved, hospital- and food-grade neutral disinfectant for large indoor and outdoor facilities and arenas.

Aerial spraying was banned mainly in Europe before the pandemic. In the U.K., the debate began last year to ease this ban, but many countries in the EU have questioned whether this form of disinfecting is beneficial. Nevertheless, it is used in several countries like Spain and France, while others wait out.

Monitoring and warning

As mentioned above, the possible uses of drones in healthcare are just being explored. For example, The Vital Intelligence project in Australia used drones to monitor people for signs of the virus. Within the program, the University of South Australia and Canadian drone company Draganfly developed an algorithm for drones to “remotely monitor and detect people with infectious respiratory conditions.” There is no news of the effectiveness of the project, but it forecasts a socially distant future where humans can be safely monitored and diagnosed with possible viruses.

Another possible feature for drones was employed in Spain and China. At the height of the very first lockdown efforts, these governments used drones as loudspeakers to warn people to stay at home. This BBC video shows disturbingly dystopian images from the two countries, but these are not isolated examples.

And wait, there’s more.

Telehealth drone

Researchers at the University of Cincinnati invented a telehealth drone with cameras and a display screen to enable two-way communication – with drone support. The drone could also carry samples or medication and could be a perfect solution for remote areas, anywhere in the world.

“When the COVID-19 pandemic began, we saw a need for telehealth care delivery drones to provide healthcare in the home and in locations where access to care is not readily available,” Debi Sampsel, telehealth director at the University of Cincinnati’s College of Nursing, explained in the article.

So why don’t we use drones more often? According to a Swedish study, the main issue is regulation. Swedish researchers modeled the possible impacts of drones during quarantine. In this paper, they also put forward the need to easing regulations under some circumstances: “Indeed, one stumbling block to drones ubiquity is the generally absent regulation, in particular in regions with less strict or absent (anti-)drone laws, UAVs are already widely used for medical applications including infectious disease surveillance and epidemiology.”

On one hand, regulations are in the way of development. On the other, they are missing the point. Legal considerations (as listed here extensively) include ownership of airspace, responsibilities and authorisations of the drone pilots. And how about flights in or above congested areas? What kind of insurance drones/operators/package owners must have? How is data protected and what if drones are hacked – can they be? Can drones commit trespassing? Can they get too loud and cause disturbance?

It’s a long list of issues to be solved before drones can become a part of our lives. Until then, they remain a great white spot on the air above the future of healthcare.

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Drone deployed to disinfect hospital in Xiamen