Onboard cooling system ensures samples remain viable for medical laboratory analysis after three-hour flight across Arizona desert

Clinical laboratories and anatomic pathology groups could soon be receiving blood samples and tissue specimens through the air by medical drone. The technology has been tested successfully in Europe, which Dark Daily reported in July. Now, Johns Hopkins University Medicine (JHUM) has set a record in America for the longest distance drone delivery of viable medical specimens.

In a project to demonstrate the viability of using drones to transport medical laboratory specimens, the Johns Hopkins University team flew a drone with specimens more than 161 miles across the Arizona desert. The goal is to bring autonomous medical delivery drones a step closer to transforming how specimens get transported across long distances, according to a Johns Hopkins press release.

A previous Johns Hopkins study in 2015 proved common and routine blood tests were not affected when medical laboratory specimens were transported in up to 40-minute flights on hobby-sized drones. This latest research provides evidence that unmanned aircraft may be able to successfully and quickly shuttle medical specimens even longer distances between remote hospitals and medical laboratories.

Transporting Clinical Laboratory Samples by Air Can Save Lives

In conducting its most recent study, Johns Hopkins researchers obtained paired chemistry and hematology samples from 21 adults (84 samples in total). One sample from each pair was held at a drone test range in a car with active cooling. Remaining samples were flown for three hours in a drone with a Johns Hopkins-designed onboard payload-cooling system to maintain temperature control in the hot desert environment.

A temperature-controlled specimen transport container (above) designed by the Johns Hopkins University research team ensured the blood samples remained cooled and were viable for testing after the three-hour drone flight in the Arizona heat. The project demonstrated the viability of using drones to transport medical laboratory specimens. (Photo copyright: Johns Hopkins Medicine.)

After the 161-mile flight, all samples were transported 62 miles by car to the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Ariz., for testing. Flown and not-flown paired samples showed similar results for red blood cell, white blood cell and platelet counts, and sodium levels, among other results. Only glucose and potassium levels revealed minor but statistically significant differences in results.

Pathologist Timothy Amukele, MD, PhD (above), led a team of researchers at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine that set a new distance delivery record for medical drones after successfully transporting human blood samples 161 miles across the Arizona desert. The test flight adds to the growing evidence that unmanned aircraft may be the most effective way to quickly transport blood and other medical samples to clinical laboratories. (Photo copyright: Johns Hopkins Medicine.)

In a report of the findings published in the American Journal of Clinical Pathology (AJCP), the research team concludes that long drone flights at high temperature “do not appear to affect the accuracy of 17 of the 19 test types in this study.” However, they note, “Time- and temperature-sensitive analytes such as glucose and potassium will require good pre-planning and stringent environmental controls to ensure reliable results.”

The John Hopkins team believes their achievement adds to mounting evidence that drone transportation can transform the delivery of clinical laboratory specimens.

“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,” stated Timothy Kien Amukele, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor of Pathology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the paper’s senior author, in a Johns Hopkins Magazine article.

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

Full Drone Delivery Network Operating Over Switzerland

Medical drones are rapidly moving from demonstration projects to active use. As Dark Daily previously reported, Switzerland is establishing a delivery network of medical drones in the city of Lugano. In March 2017, drone logistics system developer Matternet, based in Menlo Park, Calif., received authorization from the Swiss Federal Office for Civil Aviation (FOCO) for full operation of drone logistics networks over densely populated areas in Switzerland. Working in partnership with Swiss Post (Switzerland’s postal service) and the Ticino EOC hospital group, Matternet successfully completed roughly 100 drone transport test flights between two of Ticino EOC’s hospitals in Lugano.

Another major player in medical drone delivery is Zipline, a Silicon Valley-based drone delivery company that since October 2016 has flown more than 14,000 flights in Rwanda, delivering 2,600 units of blood. The company’s foothold in Africa expanded in August when Tanzania announced it was partnering with Zipline to launch the “world’s largest drone delivery service to provide emergency on-demand access to critical and life-saving medicines.” Tanzania will establish four distribution centers that will use more than 100 drones to make up to 2,000 flights a day.

The emergence of medical drones not only could speed up diagnoses for patients in remote regions of the world and rural communities, but also could revolutionize anatomic pathology specimen deliveries to clinical laboratories in urban areas by providing a faster, more reliable and lower-cost delivery option than third-party couriers using ground transportation.

—Andrea Downing Peck

Related Information:

Study Sets New Distance Record for Medical Drone Transport

Drone Transport of Chemistry and Hematology Samples Over Long Distances

Using Drones to Transport Blood Samples Could Speed Diagnosis, Treatment

Drone Carrying Blood Samples Travels 160 Miles in Arizona Desert to Set New Record

Matternet Unveils the Matternet Station

Tanzania Announces World’s Largest National Drone Delivery Network Partnering with Zipline

Drones Used to Deliver Clinical Laboratory Specimens in Switzerland