Medicine by Drone Takes Off in US

By: Laurel Duggan

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), better known as drones, offer a promising solution to the transportation challenges facing the healthcare industry.

The countless obstacles to transporting organs and medical supplies worsen health outcomes and create costly delays for patients. UAVs will cut transportation costs, reduce delays for organ transplants, and facilitate the transportation of vital medical supplies, particularly in rural areas.

The slow transportation of transplant organs is a major concern in the medical community. Even minor delays can be detrimental to organ viability and patient health. Dr. Joseph R. Scalea, an assistant professor of surgery at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, experiences this frustration regularly. It once took 29 hours for his patient’s organ to be delivered from Alabama to Maryland. “Had I put that in at nine hours, the patient would probably have another several years of life,” Dr. Scalea said. “Why can’t we get that right?” By replacing traditional medical transportation systems with UAVs, we could.

In Ghana and Rwanda, UAV medical delivery has become common practice. Low air traffic, poor ground transportation, and limited healthcare options prompted the rise of drone technology. Delivery times for blood banks in Rwanda were cut from two hours to fifteen minutes. Zipline International delivers vaccines, blood products, and medications to several thousand health facilities in Africa, serving about 22 million people. Rural America, which struggles with vast distances between healthcare providers and has the advantage of low air traffic, is similarly poised to benefit from medical UAVs.

The rollout of medical drones in the United States has been comparatively slow. The first delivery of an organ by UAV in the U.S. occurred in 2019, saving the life of a woman who had been on dialysis for eight years. Yet we have not seen widespread adoption of UAV use in the medical field. Burdensome regulations, public fear, and legitimate safety concerns prevent UAVs from realizing their full life-saving potential—for now.

Mercatus reports that drone companies and governmental traffic control agencies are developing new UAV safety technologies, including sense-and-avoid systems, remote identification, automated air traffic control, and improved communication systems.

Drone companies also face regulatory obstacles to expansion. Regulations require drones to be flown within the operator’s line of sight; limit altitude to 400 feet; restrict flight times to daylight hours; and prohibit flying over other drones not involved in the same mission. Policy issues including spectrum regulation, airspace design, and privacy, are also a hindrance to medical drone use. Developments in UAV safety technologies should prompt regulators to gradually scale back rules that are no longer needed so that medical drones can be used to save lives.

Zipline is now expanding into healthcare in the U.S. The company was granted special permission in May to deliver medical supplies across a distance of 32 miles, relaxing the line-of-sight regulation that typically discourages commercial use of drones. Several American companies have tested short distance drone delivery of medical supplies, but this 32 mile delivery route is a transformative step towards broader UAV usage. Zipline will be delivering medical supplies between Novant Health Huntersville Medical Center and the Novant Health Respiratory Assessment Center outside of Charlotte, North Carolina. The decision, prompted by a public health emergency, should prompt regulators to rethink some of the more stringent and outdated rules against drone use. It should also encourage drone companies to push ahead towards innovative health solutions.

Photo Credit: MIKI Yoshihito