The Potential of Drones Providing Health Services

The Potential of Drones in Providing Health Services

Drones or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are emerging as a new medical tool that can help mitigate logistical problems and make health-care distribution more accessible. Experts are considering various possible applications for drones, from carrying disaster relief aid to transporting transplant organs and blood samples.

Drones have the capacity to carry modest payloads and can transport them quickly to their destination.

Benefits of drone technology compared to other transportation methods include avoiding traffic in populous areas, circumventing bad road conditions where terrain is hard to navigate and safely accessing dangerous fly zones in war-torn countries. Although drones are still poorly utilized in emergency situations and relief operations, their contributions have been increasingly recognized. For example, during the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan, a drone was launched in the area. It safely collected the radiation levels in real-time, helping with emergency response planning.

Ambulance Drones that Can Deliver Defibrillators

As a part of his graduation program, Alec Momont of Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, designed a drone that can be used in emergency situations during a cardiac event. His unmanned drone carries essential medical equipment, including a small defibrillator.

When it comes to reanimation, timely arrival at the scene of an emergency is often the decisive factor. Following a cardiac arrest, brain death occurs within four to six minutes, so there is no time to lose. Emergency services response time averages approximately 10 minutes, and unfortunately only eight percent of people who suffer a heart attack survive.

Momont’s emergency drone could drastically change the odds of heart attack survival. His autonomously navigating mini airplane only weighs four kilograms (8 pounds) and can fly at around 100 km/h (62 mph). If strategically located in dense cities, it can reach its target destination quickly. It follows the caller’s mobile signal by using GPS technology and is also equipped with a webcam. Using the webcam, emergency service personal can have a live link with whoever is helping the victim. The first responder on site is provided with a defibrillator and can be instructed on how to operate the device as well as be informed on other measures to save the life of the person in need.

A study performed by researchers from Karolinska Institute and The Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden, showed that in rural areas, a drone—similar to that designed by Momont—arrived faster than emergency medical services in 93 percent of the cases and could save 19 minutes of time on average. In urban areas, the drone reached the scene of the cardiac arrest before an ambulance in 32 percent of the cases, saving 1.5 minute of time on average. The Swedish study also found that the safest way to deliver an automated external defibrillator was to land the drone on flat ground.

Or, alternatively, release the defibrillator from low altitude.

Center for the Study of Drone at Bard College found that emergency services applications of drones are the fastest growing area of drone application. There are, however, mishaps that are being recorded when drones participate in emergency responses. For example, drones interfered with the efforts of firefighters battling California’s wildfires in 2015. A small aircraft can get sucked into the jet engines of a low-flying manned aircraft, causing both aircrafts to crash. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is developing and updating guidelines and rules to ensure safe and legal use of UAVs, especially in life and death situations.

Giving Your Mobile Phone Wings

SenseLab, of the Technical University in Crete, Greece, came third in the 2016 Drones for Good Award, a UAE-based global competition with over a 1,000 contestants. Their entry constituted an innovative way to transform your smartphone into a mini drone that could assist in emergency situations. A smartphone is attached to a model drone that can, for example, automatically navigate to a pharmacy and deliver insulin to the user who is in distress.

The phone-drone has four basic concepts: 1) it finds help; 2) brings medicine; 3) records the area of engagement and reports details to a predefined list of contacts; and 4) assists users in finding their way when lost.

The smart drone is only one of SenseLab’s advanced projects. They are researching other practical applications of UAVs as well, such as connecting drones to biosensors on a person with health problems and producing an emergency response if the person’s health suddenly deteriorated. 

Can Drones Carry Sensitive Biological Samples?

In the United States, medical drones have yet to be extensively tested. For example, more information is needed on the effects the flight has on sensitive samples and medical equipment. Researchers at Johns Hopkins provided some evidence that sensitive material, such as blood samples, could safely be carried by drones. Dr. Timothy Kien Amukele, a pathologist behind this proof-of-concept study, was concerned about the drone’s acceleration and landing. Jostling movements could destroy blood cells and make samples unusable. Luckily, Amukele’s tests showed that blood was not affected when carried in a small UAV for up to 40 minutes. The samples that were flown were compared to non-flown samples and their test characteristics did not significantly differ.

The Johns Hopkins team is now planning a pilot study in Africa that is not in a vicinity of a specialized lab—therefore benefiting from this modern health technology. Given the flight capacity of a drone, the device may be superior to other means of transport, especially in remote and underdeveloped areas. Furthermore, the commercialization of drones is making them less expensive compared to other transportation methods that have not evolved the same way. Drones could ultimately be a health technology game charger, especially for those who have been limited by geographic constraints.

Several researcher teams have been working on optimization models that could help deploy drones economically. The information is likely to help decision makers when coordinating emergency responses. For instance, increasing a drone's flight height, raises the costs of the operation, while increasing the speed of a drone, generally reduces =costs and increases the service area of the drone. A team from Xiamen University in China, and the University of Western Sydney in Australia, are also developing an algorithm for supplying multiple locations using one UAV. Specifically, they are interested in the logistics of blood transport, considering different factors such as the weight of blood, temperature and time. Their findings could be applied to other areas as well, for example, optimizing food transport using a drone.

Sources:

Amukele T, Sokoll L, Pepper D, Howard D, Street J. Can unmanned aerial systems (Drones) be used for the routine transport of chemistry, hematology, and coagulation laboratory specimens?. Plos ONE, 2015;10(7).

Analysis of U.S. Drone Exemptions 2014-2015. Center for the study of the Drone at Bard University. Retrieved from http://dronecenter.bard.edu/analysis-us-drone-exemptions-14-15-2/

Chowdhury S, Emelogu A, Marufuzzaman M, Nurre S, Bian L. Drones for disaster response and relief operations: A continuous approximation model. International Journal of Production Economics, 2017;188: 167-184

Claesson A, Fredman D, Ban Y, et al. Unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) in out-of-hospital-cardiac-arrest. Scandinavian Journal of Trauma, Resuscitation And Emergency Medicine, 2016;24(1):124.

Wen T, Zhang Z, Wong K. Multi-Objective Algorithm for Blood Supply via Unmanned Aerial Vehicles to the Wounded in an Emergency Situation. Plos ONE, 2016;(5): 1-22.

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