While most of us can’t wait for Amazon’s package delivery drones to cut down on the time it takes for us to get our grubby hands on whatever it was we ordered from the website; drones might end up carrying far more important packages for medical clinics in the future. A group of researchers at Johns Hopkins University have been testing the potential for drones to act as a delivery service for blood.
The study, which was published on Wednesday in PLOS ONE, was a proof-of-concept for the idea. In the study, the researchers tested the potential for hobby-sized drones to carry blood for up to 40 minutes without damaging the samples. The scientists behind the study believe that drones may provide a faster and more reliable alternative for transporting the blood samples to and from rural areas. In many developing countries, millions of people live in rural regions that lack the capability of performing lab tests necessary for diagnoses and treatments. As most of these tests require dedicated laboratories that are often many miles away from the rural parts of a country, hospitals and clinics in the country must rely on cars to move the samples. But poorly maintained roads and traffic jams can make conventional transportation far too slow, which is where the researchers are hoping the drone will solve problems.
Transporting blood quickly could prove to be useful outside of rural areas as well as speeding up the process of blood transfusions would help save the lives of those who experience terrible accidents. Drones, capable of bypassing the slow traffic of cities and accessing difficult areas, would make the process of getting the necessary blood to a patient dramatically faster.
However, transporting blood by drone comes with its own host of problems. Chief among them is how easy it is to damage blood. “”Biological samples can be very sensitive and fragile,” said Timothy Amukele, M.D., Ph.D., a pathologist at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and director of a laboratory collaboration between Johns Hopkins and Uganda’s Makerere University in a report by Eureka Alert. When it comes to drones, Amukele is most worried about the jolt of acceleration that occurs at lift off, and the jostling of the drone when it finally lands. “Such movements could have destroyed blood cells or prompted blood to coagulate, and I thought all kinds of blood tests might be affected, but our study shows they weren’t, so that was cool,” he said.
Amukele and his team tested over 300 samples of blood taken from 56 volunteers at Johns Hopkins. All of the samples were taken to the flight site near the hospital where half were packaged and ready to be airborne while the rest were driven back to the hospital to be tested immediately. After the other samples were loaded onto a drone and flown around for periods ranging from six to 38 minutes, they too were taken back to the hospital and subjected to the same tests as their grounded counterparts. The researchers ran all of the blood samples through a gauntlet of tests that covered about 80 percent of the types of tests commonly performed on blood.
Once the test results were compared, it was clear that the drone test had been fairly successful. Amukele said that “the flight had no real impact.” There was one exception however, a test for the total amount of carbon dioxide yielded differing results between the drone carried samples and the non-flown samples. Amukele and his team can’t quite pinpoint the reason for the difference, but he believes that is more likely due to the blood samples sitting around for so long, than for any flight related reasons. “The ideal way to test that would be to fly the blood around immediately after drawing it, but neither the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] nor Johns Hopkins would like drones flying around the hospital,” he said.
With a successful proof-of-concept under his belt, Amukele and his team are gearing up for a pilot study in Africa, where some regions struggle from having medical labs far from the clinics that need tests. Further development of the project is likely going to be facing the same obstacles that stand in the way of Amazon’s drone developments, as regulations on drone use struggle to keep up with the rapidly developing technology and multitude of uses researchers are developing for the technology.