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Medical Drones: Trends, Operations and Barriers




What are Drones?

The term drone refers to an unpiloted aircraft or is also known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), these aerial vehicles can carry out an excellent wide range of tasks, ranging from package delivery to military operations. The term unmanned aerial vehicles were first introduced in the 1980s to designate remotely controlled, or autonomous, multi-use aerial vehicles. The well-known public term drone was first introduced, due to the resemblance of the loud and rhythmical sound of old military unmanned target aircraft to that of a male bee. In 1942, the Navy established a radio-controlled drone that carried a torpedo. The origins of UAVs can be dated back to World War I, almost 100 years back.

Drones, Other Industries, and Healthcare Industry:

Drones are one of the emerging technologies that are transforming the transportation system. Previously drones were used for military expeditions, however, nowadays the drones can be seen in commercial & civilian use, making their way in various other industries such as e-commerce, mining, chemicals industry, forest conservation, construction, geography mapping, filmmaking, petrochemicals, (Oil & Gas), public safety such as the law enforcement, fire departments, search and rescue operations, and many others. Moreover, the healthcare industry has also acknowledged the importance of drone transportation systems. Drones are offering a new extent to the healthcare system and users. Although the usage of drones in the healthcare sector is dawning, however in the coming years the adoption rate is anticipated to increase tremendously. The advancement in technology, growing investment, and support from the government will be the leading factors for the adoption of drones in the healthcare sector. In addition, these components are also forecasted to increase the healthcare products and services delivery in remote areas. Drones can be a supportive arm in transforming the existing healthcare system with many potential benefits. Furthermore, the Covid-19 pandemic has also stimulated the development of medical drones and their usage. Several companies have started testing the potential of drones in vital medical supplies. Health authorities have also incorporated drones for surveillance services in virus-infected isolated areas. Looking at the current situation and the advancement in the segment, medical drones are likely to provide valuable healthcare-related services more systematically and effectively in the coming years.

Medical Drones

Operation Mode of Drones:

These robotic drones operate without a pilot on board and with different levels of autonomy. Depending upon the technology, drones can be semi-autonomous where a human source remotely pilots and controls movements to advanced autonomous, which means that the drone relies on a sophisticated system of sensors and LIDAR detectors to determine its movement.

Transformation in transportation via Drones

The modern healthcare sector represents some of the extraordinary accomplishments of the human intellect to improve the quality of people's lives. Yet, in these modern times, many people in rural and underdeveloped parts of the world still don't have access to basic healthcare. Closing these gaps has become a new urgency during the current COVID-19 pandemic, which has made clear how interconnected all of our health outcomes are. Drones are an excellent way to modernize the last mile in medical deliveries and bridge gaps in access to basic healthcare in remote and underdeveloped parts. Drones can provide just-in-time supplies of vital medical products, regardless of location. Moreover, some health systems can't afford to keep cold-chain products such as platelets, vaccines, or blood on-site, thus drones can ensure these supplies are available on demand.

Drones for healthcare transportation of vital organs have recently seen a range of landmark moments. Last year, a University of Maryland drone transported a kidney that was successfully transplanted into a patient having a serious nephrological condition, making it the first-ever delivery of a human organ via a medical drone. Furthermore, the UPS Foundation, Zipline, and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance recently formed a collaboration to begin its operations in transporting blood and vaccines to rural areas in Rwanda. The outstanding achievement in the transportation of vital organs has been registered in September 2021, a drone built by Quebec-based Unither Bioelectronics flew just 1.2 kilometers from Toronto Western Hospital on the city's west side to the roof of the Toronto General Hospital carrying lungs.

Telehealth a Future Trend

Telehealth is an emerging area that could benefit from developments in drone technology that facilitate flight beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) and drone delivery.  Mobile, contactless applications that offer two-way communications and delivery functions have vast potential in healthcare – especially in this ongoing pandemic. With new regulations like a flight over people and moving vehicles, scaling drone delivery to a wide range of residential areas has become more realistic. Access to healthcare is a major obstacle faced by individuals around the world – one that has been aggravated during the COVID-19 pandemic.  In the U.S., 1 in 4 people does not have access to a primary care physician where they can receive regular care.  Telehealth technologies have improved, more and more healthcare providers are providing virtual office visits through applications like Skype and Facetime.  This kind of telehealth is an advantageous first step, but the main requirement is that patients should have access to high-speed internet.  Receiving test kits, supplies, medications and other medical services still require a patient to leave their home. The UC telehealth drone in the U.S. comes with a camera and display screen so that patients can have a conversation with the healthcare providers. In addition, it also performs a delivery function, carrying a small waterproof box to deliver medical supplies, or collect lab tests.

Medical Assist from the SKY

One of the extraordinary potentials of drones is that they have become handy in recent times, to aid in tracking the hosts of Plasmodium knowlesi malaria that shows a potentially greater risk of infection to humans, considering how many people are infected. Moreover, drones enhance response time and increase delivery efficiency. Furthermore, the delivery of automated external defibrillators by drones to an accident scene during Covid-19 helps in preventing infection as continuous chest compressions (CCC) and early defibrillation are relevant without mouth-to-mouth ventilation. Drone-delivered Automated external defibrillators can improve survival for patients in out-of-hospital cardiac arrest (OHCA) survival, as they have a favorable response time compared to other emergency medical services.

A major key strength of the incorporation of drones in healthcare transportation is that their delivery means can reduce travel time for diagnosis, treatment and are a cost-effective substitute to road transport in harsh terrain areas. From the perspective of cost, the financial advantages of deploying a drone within a remote medical emergency response can only be accomplished if the system is utilized extensively enough to exceed the capital costs. Moreover, recent improvements in cost efficiency, reliability, and speed of service of drone systems have motivated the development of many optimization models that consider their use for deliveries.

Barriers

Several factors hamper the usage of the medical drones in healthcare service, such as battery life, vibration during transport and concerns about movement accuracy, and maintenance of continuous communication between ground pilot and the drone. Additionally, environmental factors such as humidity and sudden fluctuations in air pressure and temperature during the delivery of blood samples, drugs, vaccines, and other medical supplies.

Stringent government rules at a global level are another issue restricting the utilization of medical drones. In addition, the regulatory plans of different countries can differ. Drone manufacturing companies should be aware of these laws before launching their products in a country.

Recent Developments in Medical Drones Market:

  • In August 2021, Everdrone AB a global leader in autonomous drone technology collaborated with Karolinska Institute to develop a drone system to deliver Automated External Defibrillators (AEDs) to the scene of cardiac arrests. The drones get to the scene before an ambulance can, and anyone could initiate life-saving measures until the ambulance arrives with the usage of a defibrillator.
  • In April 2021, ANA HOLDINGS INC., collaborated with Wingcopter, a leading drone manufacturer and service provider in Germany to boost the delivery of important pharmaceuticals and other consumer products via drones. Wingcopter is providing support in terms of operation design, training of pilots, mission planning, as well as maintenance.
  • In March 2021, Toyota Tsusho Corporation, one of Japan's general trading companies and a member of the Toyota Group, collaborated with Zipline, the world's first and only national-scale drone delivery to provide healthcare access for people and communities living in remote areas of the country. With this strategic operational partnership, Toyota Tsusho will transform the logistics and supply chain of the healthcare industry in Japan by incorporating drone technology to enhance the mobility of healthcare providers.
  • In February 2021, Flirtey a leading drone manufacturing company, and Vault Health, a US-based healthcare system firm announced the successful drone delivery trails of their first FDA COVID-19 saliva test. With this successful trial, a wide scale of drone technology will be utilized for commercial and life-saving applications.

Conclusion

The future of medical drones seems to be promising, particularly in the next six to seven years. Drone manufacturing companies are anticipated to adopt go-to-market strategies, Mergers, and acquisitions, and new product launches to stay competitive and meet the growing demand for medical drones. During the COVID-19 pandemic, drone technology has adapted to serve the needs of customers, manufacturers, and patients. Continuous research in the technology utilized in drones should further promote the usage of drones not only in the healthcare industry but also across other sectors, including e-commerce, mining, chemicals, forest conservation, construction, geography mapping, filmmaking, petrochemicals (oil and gas) and public safety such as law enforcement, fire departments, search and rescue operations.

About the Author
Abhijeet Kale

Abhijeet Kale

Research Associate     

A passionate Biotechnologist with good knowledge of emerging technologies in healthcare sector. Dependable market researcher who is good at time management and always eager to learn new skills.

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