Next time you need to provide a sample to your doctor, they might send a drone to pick it up, right from your own home. A recently published study explored the practicalities of having drones fly your urine, blood, or stool to the test lab.
Why? Because, say the study’s authors, the lab at your local doctor’s office may not be that great. Testing is better done in larger, better-equipped labs. And if you’re going to fly the samples, why not fly them to the best place available?
Can Drones be Used for the Routine Transport of Laboratory Specimens? from Medical Drones on Vimeo.
The tests, carried out by a team led by Timothy Amukele at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, focused on the effects of flight on the transported samples. The samples were separated into two batches. One was kept on the ground in a field, and the other was flown around for a while, from six to 38 minutes.
The flight had no effect on the samples, but one interesting point hides in the report: The samples were driven to the test field. While the test doesn’t account for this, it seems possible that a pothole-rattled road trip would cause more issues to your precious bodily fluids than a smooth spin through airspace.
Amukele sees drones as the perfect vehicle for transporting samples and even small doses of medicine. “While there are about 300-400,000 clinics in the U.S.,” he tells Research Gate, “most laboratory testing occurs in a minority of these sites.” Why, then, bother forcing patients to attend a clinic just to drop off a sample, if it’ll just be sent to another clinic anyway?
It’s also more efficient. “Currently many, many couriers drive one or two lab samples over long distances (over 50 miles) because there is a medical need for it,” says Amukele. “However, the cost (gas, driver salaries, wear and tear) is incredibly high, especially for rural areas, and makes no sense. This occurs in both rich and poor countries.”
Drones don’t care about poor roads, either, another advantage in rural or developing areas. But the regulation of drones currently stands in the way of using them for medical purposes. Amukele doesn’t see that changing for a decade. “Medicine is inherently conservative, so the medical system will likely wait for the regulations to catch up before there will be widespread adoption,” he says. And a good thing, too, because even Amukele isn’t happy with the “safety profile” of current drone technology. “It would be great if drones had the ability to intelligently detect and avoid obstacles, rather than just follow preplanned flight paths,” he says.
Drones are clearly going to be very useful for all kinds of small deliveries, from delivering the mail in Switzerland, to bringing your lunch, to planting trees. But are we willing to have them buzzing through the skies above us all day long, with the occasional crash-landing? Maybe the drone-shooting shotgun will be a big success after all.