Drone program will enable delivery of medical laboratory samples during the day, rather than just at night, allowing daytime sample processing that will increase efficiency and shorten time to results
Healthcare network clinical laboratories continue to explore the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), commonly known as drones, to safely deliver medical supplies and clinical laboratory specimens between locations. Dark Daily has covered several similar pioneering drone programs taking place around the world in recent years.
The latest medical laboratory company to launch a drone delivery program is Interpath Laboratory, an independent full-service medical laboratory in the Pacific Northwest.
In partnership with Arizona-based Spright—the drone division of Air Methods, a patient transport company with 300 bases in 48 states—Interpath recently announced the launch of its drone delivery pilot program for delivering lab testing specimens from Yellowhawk Tribal Health Center to Interpath’s medical laboratory in Pendleton, Oregon.
The two organizations hope the initiative will expedite the turnaround time needed for test results, thus allowing for timelier diagnoses and improving patient care and outcomes.
Replacing Automobile-based Medical Laboratory Specimen Delivery
“If this pilot program is successful and we are able to utilize this service, our patients have the opportunity to benefit from more rapid test results and access follow-up medical procedures and services,” stated Aaron Hines, CEO of Yellowhawk Tribal Health Center in a press release. “This project could help us further our mission of providing high-quality, primary healthcare for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (CTUIR).”
Currently, patient samples taken throughout the day at various Yellowhawk facilities are picked up and delivered to Interpath’s clinical laboratory in the evening via gasoline-powered vehicles. A successful drone service would allow lab test specimens to be repeatedly picked up and delivered to the lab for analysis throughout the day.
“Medical laboratory services in rural areas frequently must invest intensive time and resources into sample pick-up,” said Tom Kennedy, president of Interpath Laboratory, in the press release. “We anticipate Spright’s drone delivery service will alleviate many of the drawbacks and costs associated with automobile-based delivery. This initiative represents an example of our embrace of innovative solutions that provide more efficient and effective services to our clients.”
Other Clinical Laboratory Drone Deliver Programs Worldwide
Innovative approaches, such as the utilization of drones to make clinical laboratory specimen deliveries, can help circumvent many of the challenges in delivering healthcare to rural areas. But UAV delivery networks work equally well for faster specimen transferals in urban environments as well, leading to timelier diagnoses of diseases and ultimately to better patient outcomes.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Boston-based American Robotics is approved to operate its Scout unmanned aircraft in rural areas and below a certain altitude, achieving a milestone that may allow the industry to ‘truly take off’
Routine drone delivery of clinical laboratory specimens and medical supplies moved a step closer to reality with the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) green light to American Robotics (AR) to operate its fully automated drones without on-site pilots or on-the-ground spotters.
The Massachusetts-based company becomes the first drone operator to receive an FAA Certificate of Waiver, allowing it to operate its unmanned aircraft “beyond the visual line of sight (BVLOS) of the remote pilot in command.”
According to a news release, “Prior waivers and certifications awarded by the FAA required visual observers (VOs) stationed along the flight path to keep eyes on the airspace at all times, or required other burdensome restrictions such as infrastructure masking. … With this approval, American Robotics’ Scout System is now the first drone technology allowed to continuously operate without this costly human requirement.”
The FAA is restricting American Robotics’ operations to specific rural areas and at altitudes below 400 feet, with a maximum takeoff weight of 20 pounds, The Hill reported. Nevertheless, should AR’s automated Scout System prove safe, pilotless drones may soon be delivering clinical laboratory specimens and supplies to remote areas as well as to more densely populated hospital systems.
The FAA’s Certificate of Waiver is effective until January 31, 2023.
A New Era of Drone Delivery for Hospitals and Clinical Laboratories
Even with the restrictions, the FAA’s decision moves the commercial drone industry ever closer to routine transport of medical laboratory specimens and medical supplies by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV).
“With these approvals, American Robotics is ushering in a new era of widespread automated drone operations,” Reese Mozer, CEO and co-founder of American Robotics, said in the news release. “Decades’ worth of promise and projection are finally coming to fruition. We are proud to be the first company to meet the FAA’s comprehensive safety requirements, which had previously restricted the viability of drone use in the commercial sector.”
The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported that the FAA’s decision signals the agency’s “broader effort to authorize widespread flights by shifting away from case-by-case exemptions for specific vehicles performing specific tasks.” According to the WSJ, the FAA’s approval documents state that American Robotics’ proposed operations will provide the agency with “critical data for use in evaluating BVLOS [beyond the visual line of sight] operations from offsite locations.”
FAA Approval a ‘Game Changer’
In its quest to receive FAA approval, American Robotics completed a four-year testing program around its Scout line of UAV products. According to the company, Scout systems flew as many as 10 automated missions per day in 2020 for industrial and agricultural customers in multiple states capturing a variety of advanced data.
The Scout system addresses safety concerns by using acoustic detect-and-avoid technology to maintain a safe distance from other aircraft while also avoiding birds or other potential obstacles.
“The commercial drone industry is growing quickly and providing significant benefits to the American public, but enabling expanded operations beyond visual line of sight is critical for the industry to truly take off,” Lisa Ellman, JD, Partner at Hogan Lovells and Executive Director of the Commercial Drone Alliance, said in the news release.
“Automated beyond visual line of site operations are particularly important to opening the commercial sectors to the drone economy, including the agriculture and industrial verticals. Key to these operations is the use and FAA acceptance of new and innovative safety technologies, such as detect and avoid sensors and software-enabled automation.”
The agricultural and energy industries are seen as key beneficiaries of this latest FAA action. Lance Ruppert, Director of Agronomy Marketing and Technology at Growmark Inc., a leading US grower cooperative, calls the American Robotics’ approval a “game changer.”
“Our interest in American Robotics’ technology started with the desire to have a drone imagery solution that was reliable, scalable, and executed with minimal human resources,” Ruppert said in the news release. “This technology, along with the FAA approvals to operate it without humans on the ground, is key to making drones a widespread reality in our industry.”
Drone Delivery of Clinical Laboratory Specimens Worldwide
And past Dark Daily ebriefings reported on drone delivery of medical supplies being conducted in Virginia, North Carolina, Australia, Switzerland, and Rwanda. With potentially fully automated systems just around the corner, there’s no question the use of drones to transport critical medical supplies and biological specimens is poised for an amazing breakthrough.
While the FAA’s approval of the first fully automated commercial drone flights may not have an immediate impact on clinical laboratories, the increasing use of commercial drones brings drone transportation of lab specimens and other medical supplies one step closer to reality.
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.
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:
Lugano Regional Hospital;
Three locations of the Regional Hospital of Bellinzona and Valli (Bellinzona, Faido and Acquarossa);
Mendrisio Regional Hospital;
Locarno Regional Hospital;
Novation Rehabilitation Clinic; and
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 (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.
“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 (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.