Coming to a Transplant Unit Near You: Drones Impact on the Delivery of Healthcare

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The FAA predicts there will be 7 million drones registered in the US by 2020. While over half of the drones flying today belong to hobbyists, the rest are owned by private enterprise and various government agencies.

However, despite their popularity, drones are a controversial tech. Opponents argue they’re unsafe and cite a litany of unethical uses. They can, for example, cause plane crashes, go rogue and attack pedestrians, become hijacked and used for unsavory purposes like illegal drugs and of course, the personal privacy concerns. With any disruptive technology, you have to consider the good with the bad. One potential use of drones that has garnered little press is the usefulness in the realm of healthcare.

“Drones for Good”

Recently, the United Arab Emirates launched a competition called “Drones for Good” with a $1 million prize for the proposal utilizing drones in the most helpful ways imaginable, the betterment of society. Last year, 20 finalists were chosen with ideas that ranged from food and aid delivery, search and rescue, to health-related applications like using drones to deliver organs to people requiring transplants. Spoiler alert: The organ delivery proposal did not win the cash prize. But it piqued the interest of a Chinese company, which recognized the commercial potential and quickly drew plans to manufacture a fleet of medical transport drones.

It wasn’t long before the US-based Lung Biotechnology, a subsidiary of United Therapeutics, placed an order for 1000 of the drones which they plan to put in use over the next decade. The plan: Lung Technology aims to grow transplantable organs using pigs, and then utilize the drones to deliver them when time is of the essence. Of course, this is all dependent on FAA and FDA approval. The investment was a bold one, with no immediate use for the drones.

The Technology

The drones are being specially designed to carry organs. They have a weight under 44 pounds and average an in-flight speed of 56 miles per hour. They are also fitted with an ultra lightweight cooling chamber to ensure organs will be kept at 39 degrees Fahrenheit. The price tag for a single drone plus the base station, piloting console, 20 containers for carrying the organs, staff onboarding, and sanitation that uses ultraviolet radiation, totals around $1.4 million.

Other Uses for Medical Drones

The medical use of drones is not a novel one. In recent years others have used drones to impact healthcare. For example, drones are used to drop medical supplies into rural areas. The California startup Zipline International has begun delivering blood to clinics in Rwanda. Doctors Without Borders is experimenting with transporting samples by drones to labs in Haiti.

In the US, the first government-approved drone delivery of medication and supplies occurred in 2015, at a rural Appalachian clinic. Matthew Sweeny, the CEO of Flirtey, the company involved in the landmark delivery says that drone delivery does provide the fastest, most reliable method to deliver emergency supplies.

There are certainly many situations where drone delivery of healthcare could prove lifesaving and in this disaster prone world, shouldn’t we leverage the technology we have to prevent a repeat?

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