Drones Could Be the Future of Healthcare

By John Palmer

The days are coming fast when cars and trucks won’t be the motor vehicles of choice for moving things across hospital campuses.

That’s because these motor vehicles are being replaced gradually with drones that can deliver blood samples and supplies, and can perform human-driven tasks such as security and construction.

Don’t be too worried—the day when AI and robots and autonomous drones take over operations at your hospital is still far off. But hospitals are increasingly experimenting with drones for numerous tasks that would normally take twice as long for humans to do, and they are starting to enjoy a co-existence that’s likely to expand well into the future.

For WakeMed Health & Hospital in Raleigh, North Carolina, that era began in August 2018. The hospital system teamed up with the North Carolina Department of Transportation’s Division of Aviation to conduct a first round of test flights for drones to carry simulated medical packages from Raleigh Medical Park, located across the street from the campus, to a main tower at the hospital.

That may not seem like a long way to travel, but many things can go wrong when an autonomous flying vehicle flies across a busy road, near hospital campus buildings with lots of people nearby, carrying sensitive items such as blood samples and patient records. It’s a good idea to take some time to get the execution right.

The test flights were part of the Federal Aviation Administration’s Unmanned Aircraft System Integration Pilot Program. The three-year program aims to test practical applications of drones by partnering local governments with private-sector companies to learn more about how emerging drone technology can be safely and usefully integrated into day-to-day activities.

WakeMed’s tests went well, apparently, and the hospital in March partnered with Matternet, a California company that manufactures delivery drones and their cloud operating systems, as well as with the United Parcel Service (UPS) to deliver medical samples and specimens to buildings across the WakeMed Campus.

“The partners each have a very different role,” said Stuart Ginn, MD, medical director at WakeMed Innovations, in a hospital press release. “We see this as an opportunity to improve transport operations inside our system. In healthcare, that translates directly into patient care.”

Currently, the majority of medical samples and specimens are transported across WakeMed’s expanding health system by courier cars, and the hospital says the addition of drone transport provides a number of potential benefits. These include an option for on-demand and same-day delivery of samples, the ability to avoid roadway delays, increased medical delivery efficiency, lower costs, and improved patient experience with potentially life-saving benefits.

Matternet makes a drone called the M2 quadcopter, which is powered by a rechargeable lithium-ion battery and can carry medical payloads weighing about 5 pounds over distances of up to 12.5 miles.

The WakeMed program won’t require those distances, however. To get samples across campus, a medical professional will load a secure drone container with a medical sample or specimen—such as a blood sample—at one of WakeMed’s nearby facilities.

From there, the drone will fly along a flight path predetermined by the Matternet cloud, and just in case of a problem mid-flight, the drone is monitored by a specially trained remote pilot-in-command to a fixed landing pad at WakeMed’s main hospital and central pathology lab.

The ongoing program at WakeMed will be used by UPS and Matternet to consider how drones can be applied to improve transport services at other hospitals and medical facilities across the U.S.

“This powerful technology has the potential to achieve transformative improvements in health and healthcare delivery,” Ginn said. “As a Level I Trauma Center, WakeMed is committed to providing life-saving treatment when time matters the most. Developing healthcare-related uses for drones will improve speed of deliveries, enhance access to care and create healthier communities.”

In fact, some hospital designers are already imagining a future where drones will be a major part of the daily routine of a healthcare facility.

Leo A Daly, a Miami-based architecture firm, has been working on a concept for a drone-powered hospital to deliver food and medical supplies directly to patients.

The payoff, the architects claim, would be in taking certain functions at the hospital—such as food service, pharmacy, and medical supply management—off campus, and using drones to fly these goods to the hospital on demand.

It sounds complicated, and expensive, until you consider the amount of space that these facilities take up in a hospital. By some estimates, moving these services off-site could reduce a hospital’s footprint by up to 20%, resulting in quite a savings in construction and staffing costs.

So how do the supplies get to the patients? Eduardo Egea, vice president and managing principal at the firm, told HFM magazine that each patient room would be outfitted with a drone delivery port on the outside of the hospital. A cargo net would receive deliveries, which would then be slid into the room, stored in a moisture- and tamper-free cabinet to be retrieved later.

It sounds far-fetched, but Daly is already in talks with hospitals in Puerto Rico to install delivery ports on buildings being rebuilt after Hurricane Maria ravaged the island in 2017.

“When barges finally began entering the port with supplies, there were still cases where they were unable to get those supplies to those who needed it, including the elderly and critical patients who can’t move from those facilities,” Egea told HFM.

“We have seen others delivering medications via drone, but no one has tackled the architectural component as to how to actually deliver [goods] to someone who is inside the building.”

While the use of drones at hospitals in the U.S. is a relatively new concept, in other countries it’s more commonplace.

In 2014, San Francisco–based Zipline became one of the world’s first drone distribution companies to offer on-demand medical supply deliveries. In 2016, the company started service in Rwanda, delivering 150 medical products such as blood and vaccines in remote areas hard to reach with land-based vehicles.

Other drone companies have expanded services into places like Switzerland, where drones make same-day, on-demand test results a reality because of quicker sample deliveries to the lab. In African countries such as Ghana, Malawi, and Papua New Guinea, medicines are able to be delivered quickly to regions devastated by civil war and an ongoing Ebola epidemic, where it might be impossible to do so safely over land.

Autonomous technologies have been slowly working their way into many aspects of healthcare, albeit slowly and not without potential patient safety issues. Robotically assisted surgical devices have enabled surgeons to perform a variety of surgical procedures through small incisions in a patient’s body. This type of surgery may help reduce pain, blood loss, scarring, infection, and recovery time after surgery in comparison to surgical procedures that do not use these devices. Computer and software technology allow a surgeon to control surgical instruments attached to mechanical arms through minimally invasive incisions while viewing the surgical site in 3D high definition.

An April 2016 study of robotic surgery of all types published in the online journal PLOS ONE concluded that “despite widespread adoption of robotic systems for minimally invasive surgery in the U.S., a non-negligible number of technical difficulties and complications are still being experienced.”

It found 144 deaths, 1,391 patient injuries, and 8,061 device malfunctions in that period, including burnt or broken pieces of instruments falling into patients, electrical arcing of instruments, and having to interrupt the surgery to restart the system or switch to non-robotic techniques.

It’s not hard to imagine that drone deliveries might run into the same sort of issues. What happens, for instance, if a drone delivering blood samples crashes into a parking lot or a vestibule filled with visitors to the hospital? How does the hospital mitigate theoretical situations such as bloodborne pathogens infecting a large number of people after such an incident? And who is responsible—the hospital or the operator of the drone?

While the Matternet drones are technologically advanced, they are not infallible. In July 2019, the Swiss Post put the drone delivery program on indefinite hold after two of the drones crashed, despite having made more than 3,000 successful deliveries. One of the crashes resulted in a drone landing in Lake Zurich, while another resulted in a crash 50 yards away from a school playground where children were playing. In that case, the device’s parachute system failed, and the drone crashed into the woods—no one was injured, but these systems will need to be improved before they can be used reliably around populated areas with other aircraft while carrying potentially harmful substances.

“At Matternet, we take the safety of our technology and operations extremely seriously,” the company wrote in a statement after the incident. “A failure of the parachute system is a clear failure of our safety mechanisms and we are taking all the appropriate measures to address it.”

John Palmer is a freelance writer who has covered healthcare safety for numerous publications. Palmer can be reached at johnpalmer@palmereditorial.com.