In East Africa, drones deliver critical medical supplies. What’s holding the U.S. back?

Several countries in East Africa are using drones to deliver medical supplies to people in remote areas, far surpassing medical drone usage in countries like the U.S. that have a more robust infrastructure and more resources. 

Tanzania and Rwanda have partnered with a California company to quickly transport units of blood and medical supplies, according to RealClear Health. In Rwanda the drones have covered more than 62,000 miles and delivered 2,600 units of blood since October.

But Robert Graboyes, a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University writes that Federal Aviation Administration restrictions limit that potential in America despite the fact that many rural parts of the country could benefit from the use of drones.

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Researchers have been testing the use of drones during a large-scale disaster. Using cameras, microphones and interactive goggles, researchers at William Carey University have built drones that can connect survivors with an emergency physician. Meanwhile, a study published by Swedish researchers found drones were nearly 17 minutes faster than an ambulance in delivering defibrillators to cardiac arrest victims.

“While U.S. infrastructure is far ahead of that in Rwanda or Tanzania, millions of Americans are spread across immense tracts of rural and remote land,” Graboyes wrote. “Difficulties in delivering emergency supplies to Appalachia, western Indian reservations, and disaster sites (like Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina), can cost lives and waste scarce resources. Even in more developed areas, critical deliveries can be slowed by traffic congestion and dangerous driving conditions, such as icy roads. In such circumstances, drones can reach critically ill patients not reachable by conventional means.

The devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey in Southeast Texas over the weekend could spur further discussions about the use of drones to deliver supplies or facilitate emergency care. The Department of Health and Human Services declared a public health emergency over the weekend and delivered 53,000 pounds of medical equipment to Texas and Louisiana.