Packing for medical drone delivery

US team set medical drone delivery record

Image credit: Johns Hopkins Medicine

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University have successfully transported human blood samples across 161 miles of Arizona desert via drone, the furthest distance covered.

When disease spreads through sparsely-populated areas, the swift transport of medical samples to laboratories for diagnostic testing can be matter of life and death. When the Ebola epidemic rapidly spread through West Africa in 2014, the German government donated 400 motorbikes to the region in order to speed up the delivery of medical samples.

Now, more and more commentators argue that drones could play a major role in the future of medical delivery.

“We expect that in many cases, drone transport will be the quickest, safest and most efficient option to deliver some biological samples to a laboratory from rural or urban settings,” said Dr Timothy Amukele, a pathologist at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

“Drones can operate where there are no roads, and overcome conditions that disable wheeled vehicles, traffic and other logistical inefficiencies that are the enemy of improved, timely patient diagnoses and care […] Drones are likely to be the 21st century’s best medical sample delivery system.”

Having previously worked on adapting drone technology for medical deliveries, Dr Amukele has recently led a project aimed at extending the distance that a drone could fly while keeping a medical sample in a stable condition.

This culminated in a drone carrying blood samples for a three-hour flight through the baking Arizona desert.

The team collected pairs of 84 human blood samples from the University of Arizona, then drove the samples 76 miles until they reached a remote airfield. Of each pair, one sample was held in a stationary, cooled car, while the other was flown by remote-operated drone on a clear test range for 161 miles, returning to the same airfield.

Through the flight, the samples were stored in a temperature-controlled chamber kept at 24.8°C, in order to ensure that the samples were fit for laboratory analysis after reaching their destination.

Following the flight, the pairs of samples were transported a further 62 miles by car to the Mayo Clinic in nearby Scottsdale. At the laboratory, they were tested for 17 of the 19 common chemistry and haematology tests.

The pairs showed very similar results for red and white blood cell and platelet counts and sodium levels, although there were small differences in the samples’ glucose and potassium levels. These changes were caused by chemical degradation from the slightly warmer temperature in the samples which remained in the car.

In their American Journal of Clinical Pathology report, Dr Amukele and his team said that the achievement adds to a growing body of evidence that drone delivery is a safe and efficient way to transport medical samples between remote sites and laboratories. Next, the researchers hope to expand the scale of their studies in the US and overseas.

“Getting diagnostic results far more quickly under difficult conditions will almost certainly improve care and save many lives,” said Dr Amukele.

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