The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How drones can improve medical care access

In a study conducted Johns Hopkins, researchers have found that common and routine blood tests are not affected by up to 38 minutes of travel on small drones. The proof-of-concept study showed that drones could provide quicker access to lab tests for medical clinics in rural and economically impoverished areas. (Video: Medical Drones)

Drones seem perfect for quick and fast delivery of all sorts of cargo. So why not biomedical specimens?

Well, before the medical community goes down that road, researchers with the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine wanted to know whether an actual drone flight, including a shaky takeoff and bumpy landing, would affect the specimens.

So they tested it in a proof-of-concept study. And they discovered that the process of flying in a drone didn't significantly impact blood samples; the findings were published Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE.

Timothy Amukele, a pathologist at Johns Hopkins, said he was interested in boosting access to medical care. He cited "decades of research" showing that poor access to medical care is more expensive and increases poor patient outcome, such as suffering or even death. "If we now have a cheaper way to move samples, it's a good thing, especially for patients who are hard to reach, whether they live in rural areas or places without good roads," he said.

Using drones for health isn't entirely new; earlier this month, two drones transported medicine to a rural southwest Virginia clinic in the first Federal Aviation Administration-approved medicine delivery by drone.

[Drones to deliver medicine to rural Virginia field hospital]

But there hasn't been much rigorous, systematic research into the impact of drone transport on specimens, according to the new study's authors. Blood samples in particular could be impacted by the launch and landing; a drone has to be thrown in the air, and it lands on its bottom side. Amukele said he thought that at the very least, fragile platelets would be affected.

In this study, researchers at Johns Hopkins took 336 blood samples from 56 healthy adult patients, which they then drove to a flight site an hour away from the hospital. The samples were packed up as if they belonged to infectious patients and half of them were loaded onto a hobby-sized drone, 21 samples at a time.

The samples flew on a mile loop and stayed in the air from six to 38 minutes. Then, all of the samples were driven back to the lab, where they underwent 33 of the most common tests.

There wasn't really a difference between those samples that had been flown on the drones and those that stayed on the ground, according to the study. Only one test, for total carbon dioxide, had results that "were all over the place," and researchers don't know why. "It could be it took so long to measure," Amukele said. "It's a gas, so it might have just escaped."

[This fire chief used his drone to help deliver a life vest to a stranded kid]

The next step is to apply this concept to a pilot study with real patients in real clinical settings. Amukele wants to test this out in Africa; he directs laboratory collaborations between Johns Hopkins and Makerere University in Uganda and has worked in many African countries where patient access is an acute problem.

Testing blood samples represented a beginning point to begin exploring drones for health purposes, especially since there already is a vast network of clinics taking blood samples and transporting them to labs for testing, Amukele said. Drones could potentially be used for transporting vaccines and medicines, he added.

In this particular study, the Aero drone by 3D Robotics, which costs about $1,400, flew blood samples around.

"What changed was the technology; drone technology is finally cheap enough and available enough to where it makes sense," Amukele said. Drones are cheaper than motorcycles and "it could really revolutionize access for hard to reach populations."

[Amazon details its plan for how drones can fly safely over U.S. skies]

Read more:

Scientists have synthesized a new compound that ‘mimics’ exercise. Could a workout pill be far behind?

Next stop for IBM's Watson: Your local CVS pharmacy

How you talk to your baby now can impact social skills later

Why DARPA is paying people to watch Alfred Hitchcock cliffhangers