Drones have already delivered medicine, but soon they may also deliver biological specimens. Researchers at John Hopkins Medical University have shown that human blood samples remain stable when airlifted by small drones.
The researchers believe, in the future, that this form of delivery could give millions of people in rural and economically poorer areas better access to diagnoses and treatments.
Unmanned aircraft (drones) can potentially be used for the transport of small goods such as clinical laboratory specimens. We have published what, to our knowledge, is the first study of the impact of drone transportation on routine lab test results.
"With the advent of cheap civilian drones it became clear that they could be used to expand the reach of healthcare," Timothy Amukele, an assistant pathology professor at John Hopkins Medical University and lead author of the new study, told me. "But before we get there, we have to answer a basic question: Will drone transport cause a deterioration of samples we're trying to move—whether those be blood, vaccines, or drugs?"
In the proof-of-concept study published Wednesday in the journal Plos One, the researchers described collecting a total of six blood samples from each of the 56 healthy adult volunteers at The Johns Hopkins Hospital. Half of the samples were kept on the ground, while the rest were securely packaged for flight, and flown for periods of between six to 38 minutes around an unpopulated flight site.
"I feel like we invented the car before we figured out the highway system"
Both samples (flown and unflown) were then taken back to The Johns Hopkins Hospital's Core Laboratory and analysed. The group found that those flown around by a drone were not different than the ones that remained grounded.
"I thought there was a real possibility of deterioration. We know that car transport sometimes leads to the deterioration of samples," said Amukele, who thought that the rough launch and landing of the drone might adversely affect the airborne samples.
"When you launch [this] drone, you have to throw it really hard into the air by hand, and then when it lands it lands on its belly, so it smacks the ground," he explained. "Blood samples are really fragile and I thought there would be some problems, but it was fine."
Amukele said that the positive findings have spurred the group to move onto the next stage of research.
"Now we've opened the door to really try it out for real patients and using real samples in real environments," he said. "That's the next big hurdle."
Next up, the researchers aim to do a pilot study, perhaps in Africa, where the team is already discussing getting a program off the ground with several countries. Amukele was unable to specify which ones, as the countries had not given him permission to do so. He said that he'd also like to conduct a pilot study in the US.
Now that they've ascertained that airlifted blood samples remain stable, Amukele says the main challenge is to ensure that a proper infrastructure is in place before the drones are used to transport things like blood samples, drugs, and vaccines.
The researchers will address how someone will request a drone, where it will land, and how the samples will get packed into the drones by healthcare workers.
"Those questions weren't worth thinking about until we found out that the blood specimens remained stable in flight. Now we have that out of the way, we can start answering all those practical questions," said Amukele. "I feel like we invented the car before we figured out the highway system."