Could drones help speed up the process of medical testing in remote places?
Tim Amukele, a pathologist at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, was initially skeptical about the idea. But, having tested it, he now thinks it could be a big improvement on the way things are currently done.
“At first, I thought it was pie in the sky,” he says. “But then I saw that it could be really competitive. It’s cheaper than a motorcycle, and you don’t have to worry about roads because it’s going as the crow flies.”
Amukele tested the concept with the help of two UAV engineers at a site an hour from Baltimore. Fifty-six volunteers gave samples of blood, with half traveling by drone and half going by car. The drone-flown samples showed no deterioration in characteristics like red cell counts and glucose levels, meaning drones could become a useful alternative to transporting samples by traditional means.
The samples, which were housed in the drone’s tail, flew for 38 minutes and were constantly visible to on-the-ground operators, ensuring safety. The results are written up in a recent paper in the journal PLOS One.
Amukele now plans to test the drones at sites in Africa and elsewhere. He still needs to show the samples will remain intact at very high and very low temperatures and in windy conditions. But he sees no intrinsic reason why the idea shouldn’t take off, especially in remote places in the developing world where transporting anything can be time-consuming and expensive. Organizations like Doctors Without Borders are already experimenting with the idea as well.