The startup Zipline began making blood and other medical deliveries via drone last year in Rwanda, proving that the technology could be an essential part of medical aid in remote areas. Now researchers here in America are looking to push the idea forward by seeing just how far and effective these deliveries can be.
Researchers at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine carried out tests recently in the Arizona desert to see what distances the drones could cover without compromising the blood samples there were carrying. They ended up setting a record for the longest drone flight for transporting blood samples.
Eighty four pairs of blood samples were collected and then driven 76 miles to an airfield where one from each pair was loaded onto a drone that carried it for 161 miles around the desert and back to the airfield. The flight lasted 3 hours and the blood samples were protected with an onboard temperature control system and the samples that stayed behind were kept in a car with active cooling to keep them at the right temperature.
When the drone landed, all of the samples were driven another 62 miles to the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale where they were tested for 17 of the 19 most common blood tests and the two sets compared. The results were similar for both the drone and car samples. The only exception was small differences in the potassium and glucose levels which they believed was caused by the slightly warmer temperature of the car samples compared to the drone samples.
“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,” said Timothy Amukele, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of pathology at the Johns Hopkins. “Drones are likely to be the 21st century’s best medical sample delivery system.”
A previous study by Johns Hopkins found that blood samples that traveled up to 20 miles were not negatively affected by the travel, but this study shows that with the right temperature control, drones can carry blood and other medical aid much farther than originally thought. The Zipline drones currently carry out round trips of 90 miles, limited mostly by the battery charge of the drones.