Moving medical supplies: enter the drone

Chloe Kent 5 December 2019 (Last Updated November 27th, 2019 17:08)

Getting vital equipment and medicines from A to B is not always a straightforward process, especially in harsh environments like warzones or during environmental disasters. Consequently, drones are deployed to help speed up the delivery process. Medical Technology rounds up key areas where drones are helping to get medical supplies where they are most needed.

Moving medical supplies: enter the drone
Zipline’s operations in Rwanda and Ghana will be serving more than 2,400 health facilities. Credit: UPS

Aiding military medics in the field

Researchers at the US Army’s Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center (TATRC) are collaborating with other military branches, academia and private industry to develop drones which can bring medical supplies straight to wounded soldiers on the battlefield.

From blood products to stitches and sutures, delivering these products direct to the area where a soldier has been injured could one day prove vital for field medics. Inaccessible terrain and enemy threats often make it impossible to move a wounded soldier to a medical base quickly or efficiently, and in conditions like these drone delivery could be lifesaving.

The US Army’s MED-RAS research project is working on artificial intelligence (AI) based tools, including drones, to support military medics. Alongside this, TATRC is researching how to treat wounded soldiers using robotic devices which automatically medicate patients and assist with replacing lost fluids.

Combined with drone delivery of medical supplies, these in-development technologies could drastically reduce the number of military personnel seriously injured or killed in action.

Emergency blood deliveries making strides in Africa

Blood transfusions are one of the most common procedures performed in hospitals around the world, and are so routine and necessary that many paramedics are able to provide them at the scene of traumatic injuries. But, in remote, rural hospitals in resource-limited settings, sometimes the necessary blood products just aren’t available.

San Francisco-based start-up Zipline has now developed a delivery-drone, which is being utilised by hospitals across Rwanda and Ghana to supply emergency blood products. The infrastructure in both of these countries can be poor and hospitals are sometimes inaccessible for vehicles, especially during the rainy season when floods can leave dirt roads closed for days.

Able to deliver blood, plasma and platelets in a matter of minutes, all clinicians need to do is make a phone call or send an email, text, or WhatsApp message to Zipline HQ requesting what they need. The blood products are then safely packaged inside a cardboard box and the drone heads towards the hospital in need, reaching speeds of 100kmph in just a second. It flies high enough that it doesn’t need to avoid and other objects in the air, and can handle severe wind, rain and lightning.

The automated drones are pre-programmed with set flight paths to different hospitals, and designed to always deposit their deliveries in the same spot so medics can find them easily. A paper parachute helps it drop to the ground gently, and the products inside can be transfused into the patient.

Zipline’s operations in Rwanda and Ghana will be serving more than 2,400 health facilities, and the company has signed a deal with the Indian state of Maharashtra to launch there in 2020.

Vaccines in Vanuatu

The South Pacific county of Vanuatu is made up of 82 remote islands stretched across 1,300km, making vaccine delivery something of a challenge. One in five children living on these islands miss out on their essential childhood vaccinations, due to how difficult it can be to get the medicine to them. Many areas like Cook’s Bay, a small community without a health centre or electricity, are accessible only by foot or local boat. Plus, vaccines need to be carried at specific temperatures and can become damaged by Vanuatu’s tropical climate.

With support from UNICEF, the Australian Government and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, Vanuatu’s Ministry of Health and Civil Aviation is now using drone delivery to supply vaccines to the country’s remote islands.

The vaccines are carried in Styrofoam boxes and packaged among icepacks to keep them cool. An electric indicator is built in which will be triggered if the vaccines reach an unacceptable temperature. Commercial drones are used for the task, with the first contract being awarded to Australian start-up Swoop Aero.

Swoop Aero’s drones can maintain an altitude of 500ft in the hot tropical climate and can fly in rain and 30mph winds. They can be piloted from anywhere in the world, using the Iridium satellite network to communicate from operators on the ground, and will be able to fly even if local mobile networks drop. Swoop Aero is paid only for shipments which arrive safely.

In December 2018, UNICEF claimed that one-month-old Joy Nowai from Vanuatu became the world’s first child to receive a drone-delivered vaccine.

Miriam Nampil, the nurse who delivered the vaccine, said: “It’s extremely hard to carry ice boxes to keep the vaccines cool while walking across rivers, mountains, through the rain, across rocky ledges. I’ve relied on boats, which often get cancelled due to bad weather. As the journey is often long and difficult, I can only go there once a month to vaccinate children. But now, with these drones, we can hope to reach many more children in the remotest areas of the island.”