Goal of university’s yearlong CHURP test was to validate the use of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), commonly known as drones, in the delivery of medical supplies across SUNY’s campus
Just as hospital systems worldwide are exploring the feasibility of using drone technology to deliver clinical laboratory specimens and medical supplies between healthcare settings and medical laboratories, SUNY Upstate Medical University also has joined the growing list of healthcare providers that have added unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, to their specimen/supplies delivery services.
As part of the COVID-19 Humanitarian UAS (Unmanned Aircraft Systems) Response Partnership (CHURP), in January, State University of New York (SUNY) Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, N.Y., along with project partners NUAIR, a nonprofit alliance that provides expertise in UAS operations, and Virginia-based drone services provider DroneUp, began testing delivers of a COVID-19 test kit from one rooftop to another on SUNY’s campus.
Traditional delivery of similar items normally takes about seven minutes. The drone delivered the same test kit in just two minutes, according to Government Technology(GT).
Then, “To prove that drone deliveries can be scaled up, the team conducted more medical deliveries in three locations throughout Syracuse two weeks ago, sending supplies from the hospital to a medical laboratory, from the hospital to a surgery center, and from a pharmacy to a second hospital,” GT reported.
Tony Basile, Chief Operations Officer at NUAIR, told GT the flight was a “proof of concept demonstration to show that medical deliveries can be made by drone when speed is essential, such as when tissue samples taken from a surgery patient must be delivered rapidly to a laboratory in a different building.”
Special FAA Waiver Allows Drone Flights Over Certain People
The FAA’s 107.39 waiver allows a drone operator to fly over people who are not participating in the operation and over those who are not covered under a structure or within a stationary vehicle. The January flight marked the first time the FAA’s 107.39 waiver was used for such a drone operation, a DroneUp press release notes.
The SUNY and the NUAIR alliance began formulating the concept of using drones to make medical deliveries more than a year and ago. At that time, there were concerns that a nearby highway project would disrupt normal clinical laboratory specimen delivery operations. The highway separates the hospital from a surgery center and finding a way to expedite deliveries despite slow traffic was essential, GT reported.
“They’re not going to want to wait 20 minutes for a tissue sample to get to the lab because the highway is coming down,” Basile told GT.
Challenges Encountered with Drone Delivery of Clinical Specimens and Supplies
In late spring, the team conducted additional deliveries to further prove the efficacy of using drones to transport medical supplies. They successfully transported supplies via UAV from the SUNY hospital to a clinical laboratory, from the hospital to a separate surgery center, and from a pharmacy to another hospital in the area.
“We conducted 52 successful deliveries throughout the week and were able to streamline the process, getting to about five deliveries an hour,” Basile wrote in a NUAIR article he penned, titled, “Making Drone Deliveries Scalable and Economically Viable.”
Although the unmanned delivery flights were successful, SUNY experienced challenges with using drones to make medical deliveries. Those challenges included:
- Economics: The NUAIR test flights required five people to conduct the flights, which is more costly than paying one driver to deliver the supplies.
- FAA restrictions: The FAA currently does not allow biohazardous materials or controlled substances to be transported by drones due to the risk of public exposure if a crash occurs.
- Device approval: The FAA is still in the process of evaluating which drone models will be permitted to carry medical supplies.
- Weather: Drones cannot fly in inclement weather conditions.
“[Drones] are susceptible to strong winds and icing,” Basile told GT.
However, Basile believes that with more research and test flights the challenges will be resolved, and that drones will be used for medical deliveries in the future.
“I think they’re certainly going to be used,” he told GT. “Whether it’s soon depends on what you mean by soon.”
Drones Deliver Clinical Laboratory Specimens and Medical Supplies Worldwide
Other countries are increasingly using drones to deliver COVID-19 test kits and samples to and from remote areas.
In, “Hospitals in United States and Germany Team Up with Matternet and UPS to Make Medical Laboratory Deliveries by Drone the New Normal,” Dark Daily reported on California-based Matternet’s launch of the first beyond-visual-line-of-sight (BVLOS)-operated medical drone network in Europe. Its unmanned aircraft will be flown without the requirement that a pilot always maintain a visual line of sight on the aircraft. Matternet launched its BVLOS operations at Labor Berlin, Europe’s largest hospital laboratory, which includes facilities in 13 hospitals across Berlin.
In 2018, Dark Daily reported on automated logistics company Zipline’s use of fixed-wing drones called “Zips” to provide on-demand access to vital blood supplies in Rwanda and Tanzania. The Silicon Valley company transported more than 5,500 units of blood in 2017 to 12 regional hospitals from a base in the east of Rwanda, reported The Guardian. Zipline began operating in the African nation in 2016 and quickly cut blood delivery time from four hours to an average of about 30 minutes.
And in “Swiss Post Medical Drone Carrying Clinical Laboratory Specimens Crashes in Switzerland,” we reported that the medical drone revolution experienced a setback when drone-pioneer Swiss Post (Switzerland’s postal service) saw one of its American-made Matternet drones crash into Lake Zurich, Switzerland. According to a Swiss Post news release, the drone went down carrying a “non-vital” blood sample (one that had been previously analyzed). The flight was part of a recently launched pilot program transporting blood samples between Zurich’s central laboratory and the Hirslanden Klinik Im Park, a private clinic on the opposite side of Lake Zurich.
Although not all drone delivery flights end in success, these projects clearly demonstrate how safe and reliable drone delivery of medical supplies and clinical laboratory specimens could one day be beneficial to medical communities.
Such drone deliveries will likely help medical professionals expedite diagnoses and treatment options for patients, especially in remote areas where land transportation would be much less timely.
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