Drone Delivery for Healthcare is Preparing to Take Off

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MedsurgPI is announcing our new series of Blogs about “Emerging Technologies that will Change the Current Paradigm.” We are continuously evaluating translational technologies for their potential to enhance healthcare. Periodically, we will feature blogs from subject experts who can open new technological doors to our readership. One such expert, Adam Curry, PhD has written the following blog that provides a basis for the understanding of the future delivery of goods – in particular medical goods – by drones.

A heart surgeon at a major urban hospital told me last week about a surgery he had to delay for 5 hours while a courier drove to a hospital in the next town for an out-of-stock supply. The surgery suite was tied up for the duration, at a cost of thousands of dollars. The director of operations at another hospital recently explained that the hospital leadership was considering establishing a second pharmaceutical compounding facility in a rural area to meet the demands of serving its patients in that region. The cost would be in the millions of dollars. A third hospital conducted a study last year of its courier use for lab specimen collection. Unplanned and after-hours pickups are driving up costs, and they’re looking for an alternative.

Flying drones may soon help address these problems. But drones might not be what you imagine, and they are advancing toward routine use for delivery in the United States faster than you might know. Through this and a following post, I’ll be providing a perspective on drone delivery for healthcare. In this first post, I’ll introduce flying drones and why they are attractive for delivery in healthcare. In the second post, I will cover the status of drone delivery in the United States, its technological and regulatory trajectory, and how organizations can prepare now for its integration into their operations.

What are flying drones, and why delivery?

To appreciate the potential for flying drones in healthcare, it is important to understand what flying drones are and why they hold such promise for delivery. Once primarily associated with military vehicles, and more recently calling to mind remote-controlled toy quadcopters, the term “drone” actually encompasses a broad range of vehicles defined by the lack of need for an on-board “pilot”. That leaves room for a great deal of diversity, even among drones being advanced for delivery. However, there are some key features of the drones we’re interested in – in particular, the drones we will be considering are 1) flying craft that 2) are programmable and fly autonomously, and 3) can carry useful payloads. Each element of that definition is important.

The first element of the definition, that these drones fly, is one of their great advantages. By flying, they can travel quickly along generally direct and uncongested routes, enabling delivery that is oftentimes faster than what is possible by ground vehicles. Flying drones may be of various designs, including rotorcraft (multi-rotors such as quadcopters, as well as traditional helicopter designs), fixed-wing (airplane designs) and hybrids of the two. While beyond the scope of this post, each has particular advantages and limitations that are important to consider.

The second element, programmability and autonomous flight, is important because it enables delivery with significantly lower personnel demands than required for manned vehicles – in fact, one person can manage numerous drones on delivery at the same time, and it is likely that confidence in drone technology will enable operations without any human oversight in the future. By contrast, an individual is required for each car or truck on a delivery or pick-up run. Depending on the volumes and types of deliveries, the reduction of needed personnel could result in significant cost savings.

The third element, carrying useful payloads, is of course requisite for a drone to be used for delivery. The relevant questions, then, relate to the quantity of materials and the distances the drone can manage. While there is no inherent limit to the range or payload capabilities of drones (larger drones can generally carry heavier loads over greater distances), the ones being advanced first for delivery in the United States fit within the “small” category, a designation by the United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for drones weighing less than 55 pounds with payload included[1]. As points of reference for drones in that category, the capabilities indicated for a selection of drones of varying design utilized for healthcare delivery outside the United States span from 2 to 6 kg (about 4 to 13 pounds) of payload and from 20 to 160 km (about 12 to 100 miles)[2] of flying range. The exact values depend on the particular drone, and each drone design, as mentioned previously, has its own advantages and limitations.

Why all the interest now?

The reason drones have generated such excitement recently is that they have become increasingly capable, usable, and affordable, owing to the convergence of a number of technologies. This convergence has been largely brought about by the cell phone revolution, which has reduced the cost and size of hardware for GPS, sensing, computing, and communications. Additionally, the energy density and cost of batteries have made huge advances in the past few decades, enabling useful performance from electrically-powered drones, which are generally less complex and easier to operate than gas-powered versions. These advancements, along with the efforts of dedicated drone technologists around the world, have made flying delivery drones a low-cost, accessible, and easy-to-use solution.

As indicated by the examples at the beginning of this post, drone delivery has potential across a range of applications in healthcare, including delivery of medical supplies, medications, and lab specimens. Used appropriately, it could produce significant savings of cost and time, overcome infrastructural and geographic barriers, and drive new paradigms of care.

Sounds exciting – when can I start?

The time is right for organizations in the healthcare industry (organizations including hospital systems, diagnostics companies, pharmaceutical manufacturers, logistics service providers, and others) to understand drone delivery and determine what advantages it might provide them and their customers. Starting with a thorough evaluation of operations and identification of target use cases, they can begin to prepare for eventual implementation, if the evaluation shows that is the best route. All of this must, of course, be set within the current and future regulatory, technological, and commercial landscapes. These issues will be the focus of the next post.

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Adam Curry, PhD is the founder and president of Launch Technology Consulting, which works with hospital systems and other stakeholders in the healthcare industry to evaluate and plan for the integration of drone delivery into their specific operations. Prior to founding Launch, Adam led the drone delivery initiative at BD, a Fortune 500 medical technology company.

Adam.Curry@launchtc.com / www.launchtc.com

[1] https://www.faa.gov/uas/getting_started/part_107/

[2] For additional information, see:

Zipline: http://www.flyzipline.com/ and https://spectrum.ieee.org/the-human-os/robotics/drones/ziplines-bigger-faster-drones-will-be-delivering-blood-in-the-united-states-this-year

Matternet: https://mttr.net/ and https://techcrunch.com/2017/03/31/matternet-cleared-to-fly-blood-samples-in-delivery-drones-over-swiss-cities/

Wingcopter: https://wingcopter.com/technology/ and https://wingcopter.com/deliverfuture/