For the last four years, researchers at Johns Hopkins have been field testing drones to move medical samples.
"We knew that these samples are sensitive and we wanted to figure out what things do we need to bring to the drone to help make medical transport viable," said Assistant Professor at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Dr. Timothy Amukele.
The experiments focus on if those bumpy flights and temperature changes in the air hurt cells and impact biological samples. A difference of just two degrees, or a few hours can make specimens unsuitable for lab tests and blood bad for transfusions.
The team had to modify and customize the drone before the studies even started, transforming it from a high-flying camera rig to a medical ferry.
"We developed a refrigerated compartment,” Jeff Street, drone engineer and pilot said. “That is a compartment that is lightly insulated to save weight, but it attaches to the aircraft power supply and uses that power to use a very small refrigerator that keeps the specimens in a control temperature that is set and monitored by a computer onboard."
In the most recent tests, the samples were flown around for up to 40 minutes, covering a distance of about 12 miles. Then packed up and taken back to the lab to be examined.
"And in those studies we found no impact, which is great,” said Amukele. “So basically the samples arrived fine, which is what we would need if we're going to use drones to move these samples."
Using unmanned aerial vehicles instead of cars for medical transportation could revolutionize health care. The drones could get critical blood supplies to rural, hard to reach places quicker, deliver life-saving pints of blood to the scenes of accidents and natural disasters, as well as speed up diagnosis and save lives in poor countries.
But Amukele thinks the technology could really take off by providing a faster and cheaper option to move specimens between medical facilities.
"If we had two hospitals here in Baltimore City that were separated by five miles, for example, we know that that distance can be covered by a drone in say ten minutes, in a car it would probably take a half an hour," Amukele said.
Saving time and money getting across town in heavy traffic. Eventually, Amukele envisions a drone network, connecting area hospitals and labs.
Questions still remain about the logistics and capabilities of using drones this way, as well as navigating FAA regulations. The team at Johns Hopkins says they plan to continue running tests to bring medical drones closer to reality.
Drones are already being used to move medical supplies across the globe, but it's not widespread. A handful of groups are also exploring this area.
San Francisco based company Zipline is working with the government in Rwanda to parachute blood products to remote areas from drones. Trials are also underway in Switzerland testing autonomous flights transporting lab samples between two hospitals.