Demonstration project to move lab specimens by drone was successfully conducted in this alpine nation by Swiss Post and an eight-hospital health system

Delivering clinical laboratory specimens from point A to point B while maintaining the quality and integrity of critical samples is an ongoing issue for medical laboratories and pathology groups worldwide. This is especially true in countries prone to long winters and large amounts of snow. Ground transportation in those areas often experience delays, which can prevent hospitals from receiving needed test results and progressing with treatments that could save lives.

Switzerland is now taking the lead in using drones to transport medical laboratory specimens. In what is believed to be a global first, Ticino EOC, an eight-hospital medical group in Lugano, Switzerland, partnered with Swiss Post (Switzerland’s postal service) and transportation technology manufacturer Matternet of Menlo Park, Calif., to successfully transported laboratory samples between two of Ticino EOC’s hospitals by air using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), commonly called drones. The samples arrived in good conditions after sailing high above blocked roadways. This demonstration project showed that drones can be used to safely deliver much needed lab specimens in both urban and remote rural medical settings.

Drones Present Opportunities for Medical Providers

The Ticino EOC group consists of eight hospital locations:

  1. Lugano Regional Hospital;
  2. Three locations of the Regional Hospital of Bellinzona and Valli (Bellinzona, Faido and Acquarossa);
  3. Mendrisio Regional Hospital;
  4. Locarno Regional Hospital;
  5. Novation Rehabilitation Clinic; and
  6. Oncological Institute of Italian Switzerland.

Matternet’s M2 drone is a quadcopter that travels up to 12 miles on a single battery charge. At just over 2.5 feet in diameter, the M2 can transport parcels up to 4.4 pounds. It cruises at about 22 miles/hour at an altitude of approximately164 to 328 feet above the ground.

According to Matternet’s website, the M2 is “engineered with encrypted communications, a parachute, precision landing, and a host of other safety features” and is “designed to be safe around people and infrastructure.”

Matternet received certification from the Swiss Federal Office for Civil Aviation (FOCA) to fly the drones at any time of the day. FOCA, along with Swiss Post, handle any regulatory issues involved in transporting human blood tissue and other medical laboratory specimens by drone and over public spaces.

“This is a big milestone for us. It means we can operate our technology throughout Switzerland. This will open a big opportunity in medical and e-commerce,” stated Andreas Raptopoulos, Matternet’s cofounder and CEO, in a TechCrunch article.

 

Matternet’s M2 drone

Matternet’s M2 drone (above) has been used to deliver biological samples between two hospitals in the town of Lugano, Switzerland. (Photo copyrights: Matternet/Swiss Post.)

An additional safety certification is still needed before Swiss Post adds medical drone deliveries to their official services. The packaging that will contain blood samples or any other biohazard materials still requires approval. Swiss Post hopes to be using the drone service regularly for the transportation of lab samples by 2018.

Each drone can be launched using a smartphone application. The launching and landing sites transmit an infrared signal that the drone homes in on. It then delivers the specimens to their predetermined destinations. In the event of an in-flight failure, the drone discharges a parachute and lands.

Delivery by UAV Not New to Healthcare

This is not the first venture to use drones in the field of healthcare. Zipline, a logistics company based in Silicon Valley, is working with the Rwandan government to deliver blood supplies to rural clinics by drone. The company’s website states that, as of May 2017, they have completed over 350 deliveries of blood products to hospitals in Rwanda.

An article appearing in the scientific journal PLOS ONE, highlighted how important drones can be in serving people in rural and economically impoverished areas. Drones can provide healthcare workers with fast access to lab specimens for diagnosis and treatment in areas where roads are impassable or do not exist.

Researchers for that study proved that the movement of the drones does not have any effect on blood samples, which is a crucial element in transporting medical laboratory specimens.

In a Johns Hopkins Medicine news release, one of the authors of the paper, Timothy Kien Amukele, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor of Pathology at Johns Hopkins University, noted the research team had initial concerns about the effects the acceleration and jostling of the drones would have on the laboratory specimens.

“Such movements could have destroyed blood cells or prompted blood to coagulate and I thought all kinds of blood tests might be affected. But our study shows they weren’t, so that was cool,” Amukele stated.

Pathologist Timothy Amukele, MD, PhD

Pathologist Timothy Amukele, MD, PhD (above left), teamed with engineers at Johns Hopkins to develop a drone courier system capable of transporting blood to clinical laboratories. (Photo copyright: Johns Hopkins Medicine.)

For the study, Amukele and his team collected blood samples from 56 healthy volunteers and drove the samples to a drone launching field. Half of the samples were then driven to a clinical laboratory for processing and the other half were placed on the drones for flights lasting from six to 38 minutes.

Comparison of Clinical Lab Specimens Transported by Ground and by Drone

Both the flown and the non-flown samples underwent 33 common medical laboratory tests. The test results showed almost no difference between the two groups of samples. A test for carbon dioxide was the only one that generated different results, but the team did not know if that was due to the movement of the drones or the fact that the samples sat for up to eight hours before being tested.

Amukele is taking part in a collaboration between Johns Hopkins and Makerere University in Uganda. He noted that they would like to perform a study in a more remote location, possibly in Africa, where clinical laboratories can sometimes be more than 60-miles from clinics.

“A drone could go 100 km [approximately 62 miles] in 40 minutes,” noted Amukele in the Johns Hopkins news release. “They’re less expensive than motorcycles, are not subject to traffic delays, and the technology already exists for the drone to be programmed to ‘home’ to certain GPS coordinates, like a carrier pigeon.”

Opportunities for Clinical Laboratories

Use of drones is subject to each country’s laws and regulations. In the US, drone use is regulated by guidelines established by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). In some cases, the drone must be registered with the FAA and the operator must have a remote pilot certificate to legally fly a drone.

These projects highlight the critical need for cost-effective, safe, dependable transportation of biological materials in a timely manner. For pathologists and clinical laboratories, drones could prove to be another opportunity to provide high-quality, value- added services to healthcare consumers and other medical professionals.

—JP Schlingman

Related Information:

Swiss Post Using Drones to Transport Medical Samples between Hospitals

Medical Drones Poised to Take Off

Doctors Test Drones to Speed Up Delivery of Lab Tests

Drones Can Be Used to Fly Blood Samples to Remote Medical Clinics

Drones Deliver Healthcare

Medical Drones Will Thrive in Healthcare: A Safe Road to Health

Meet Matternet, the Drone Delivery Startup That’s Actually Delivering

Matternet Cleared to Fly Blood Samples in Delivery Drones over Swiss Cities

Swiss Post Drone to Fly Laboratory Samples for Ticino Hospitals

Proof-of-Concept Study Shows Successful Transport of Blood Samples with Small Drones

Blood from the Sky: Zipline’s Ambitious Medical Drone Delivery in Africa