While drone technology is still in its infancy, the machines hold the potential to effectively deliver medical supplies to disaster areas and other remote locations, according to a paper at Air Medical Journal.
Drones are already doing so in other countries, but the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has so far prohibited using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in U.S. airspace. However, it's expected to issue new rules covering drones this year, according to the researchers.
The researchers, lead by Cornelius A. Thiels, a surgeon at Mayo Clinic's campus in Rochester, Minnesota, are referring to small, rotary-wing aircraft being tested by Google, Amazon and several startups.
Drones already have been used to deliver small aid packages after the Haitian earthquake in 2012, and Doctors Without Borders used them to transport dummy TB test samples from a remote village to the large coastal city of Kerema in Papua New Guinea, according to an announcement from Mayo Clinic.
The World Health Organization and the government of the Himalayan nation of Bhutan have been working with drones for delivering medicines and blood samples between specified landing stations. These drones cost around $10,000, can carry 5 pounds for 30 to 60 minutes of flight time--a range of about 20 to 60 miles. They can be operated manually or preprogrammed to fly specific routes.
Thiels says in the announcement that he sees drones first being used in disaster relief, but also as a means to transport blood products to critical access hospitals, mass casualty scenes and even offshore ships with seriously injured passengers. There are issues to be worked out in transporting blood products, such as keeping them at the proper temperature, but that can be worked out, he says.
Drones could also deliver expensive and rarely used drugs to small or remote hospitals, as well as meet the demand for blood products in the pre-hospital setting; the drone could take off as soon as EMS calls for it. And supplies defibrillators, tourniquets and other supplies could be quickly delivered to the scene of mass shootings, according to Thiels.
Graduate student Alec Momont from Delft University of in the Netherlands has created an "ambulance drone" fitted with defibrillator that can reach heart attack victims within minutes.