How are drones used in healthcare?

The benefits of using drones are that they help quash outbreaks of diseases, save lives in war zones, or help disaster relief efforts during humanitarian crises and provide huge opportunities for governments – allowing them to decrease pressure on emergency services, reduce costs and be more efficient.

The history of medical drone deliveries

Medical drone deliveries were first officially used in 2016, when California-based company Zipline signed a deal with the government of Rwanda to deliver blood samples, platelets and frozen plasma to remote locations across the country.

During this trial, medical staff at remote clinics were able to send orders via SMS, WhatsApp, or a dedicated online portal at the drone distribution centres. Flight paths would then be programmed using information from a 3D satellite map and manual ground surveys, and the drones would take off. A controller at the base would then monitor all drones in flight.

The cost per delivery of using drones was the same as a motorcycle service but was considerably more reliable. As such, the programme was extended and as of May 2019, more than 65% of blood deliveries in Rwanda outside of Kigali use Zipline drones.

Indeed, the trial was seen to be so successful in Africa that in 2018 the company went on to sign a $12 million deal with the government of Ghana to create the world’s largest vaccine drone delivery network, for diseases like Yellow Fever.

In a country like Ghana, where the roads are not always reliable, medical drone deliveries have huge potential to help an estimated 22 million people. The service is capable of up to 600 daily flights to over 2000 healthcare facilities across the country.

How has COVID-19 impacted medical drone deliveries?

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the drive to continue supplying medicines with as little human contact as possible has soared. It is therefore not surprising that the use of medical drones has presented an effective ‘contactless’ solution.

Indeed, numerous countries across the globe have since started their own medical drone delivery projects, for example:

  • Wingcopter drones in Scotland are being used to provide the Isle of Mull with test kits and personal protective equipment (PPE).
  • Windracers Ultra fixed-wing drone, capable of flying up to 1,000km, are carrying equipment and supplies from mainland England to Newport on the Isle of Wight.
  • Manna Aero’s drone service began trialing deliveries of essential supplies and medicines in Ireland in March 2020 in Moneygall, having received authorisation from the Irish Aviation Authority.

You can see the full list of countries with COVID-19 medical drone deliveries here.

What are the challenges of using drones this way?

While medical drone deliveries have certainly progressed since they began four years ago, there remain challenges that are currently delaying adoption on a wider scale.

The main hurdle is that medicines, blood, and organs must be kept at a certain temperature during transport. As a result, anything carried by a medical drone must be packaged among icepacks to keep it cool, even when flying long distances. To help solve this problem and monitor the temperature an electric indicator is now often built in, which is be triggered if the item gets too hot.

Finally, anyone working with the packages must be properly trained to ensure the journey and landing of the products are smooth and safe. With precious cargo on board, it is vital the landing does not damage the medicines or organs and that they can be quickly transported inside the hospital facility.

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