Medical samples transported 160+ miles by unmanned aircraft under temperature control in Arizona desert.
Medical drone delivery records were set by Johns Hopkins researchers as they successfully transported human blood samples across 161 miles of desert. Throughout the three-hour flight, the on-board payload system maintained conditions, such as temperature, ensuring the samples were viable for diagnostic analysis upon landing.
In a report about the findings, published ahead of print in the journal American Journal of Clinical Pathology in June print edition, the investigators say the findings add to evidence that unmanned aircraft are an effective, safe, and timely way to quickly transport medical samples from remote patients to laboratories with advanced diagnostic capabilities.
“Drone air transport will be the quickest, safest and most efficient option to deliver biological samples to a laboratory whether it be in a rural or urban setting,” says Timothy Amukele, M.D., Ph.D. “We don’t need to fix 20th Century problems, such as no roads, poor roads or driving vehicles through crowded urban streets to improve patient care. Logistical inefficiencies are an enemy of patient care. Drones will take patient care into the 21st Century by making patient diagnoses quicker and more efficient.”
The study demonstrated real world long distance transport of samples involving several modes of transportation. 84 samples were collected in pairs at the University of Arizona in Tucson and driven 76 miles to an airfield. One sample from each pair was loaded on the drone, which flew them 161 miles. The samples were then driven 62 miles to the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Among other precautions, the test was conducted away from populated areas, the aircraft was under the control of a certified remote pilot. The aircraft was controlled via a radio link between the onboard flight computer and the ground control station. The flight was performed in restricted airspace at an unpopulated military aircraft test range, cleared of other air traffic. Samples were packed and transported according to IATA guidelines.
During transport, the samples were in a temperature controlled chamber designed by the Hopkins team. The chamber uses electrical power from the aircraft to maintain the samples at room temperature during warm or cold weather. The device is lighter than an equivalent amount of ice, the current method of temperature control. Additionally, the chamber can warm the samples in cold weather.
Following the flight, all samples were transported to the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Arizona. Each pair of samples was compared to check for differences between the flown and not-flown sample. Results from sample pairs were similar for 17 of the 19 tests. Small differences were seen in Glucose and Potassium, which do also vary in other transport methods. We suspect the differences seen in this test arose because the samples not-flown by drone were not as carefully temperature controlled as the flown samples in the temperature-controlled chamber.
The aircraft used in this study was a Latitude Engineering HQ-40. It has a unique “quadplane” hybrid configuration that has the ability to take off vertically and make a transition to traditional horizontal flight. This aircraft is uniquely suited to operate at medical facilities because it has the ability to land in a small space and fly efficiently between widely separated facilities.
The Johns Hopkins team previously studied the impact of drone transportation on the chemical, hematological, and microbial makeup of drone-flown blood samples and found that none were negatively affected. Previous studies involved drone flight distances up to approximately 20 miles. The new study examines the effects of drone transportation over longer distances, more than 160 miles, and significantly longer time periods that require environmental controls. The team plans further and larger studies in the U.S. and overseas.
“My vision is that we engage drone technology to fly over challenges presented by self-limiting ground transportation systems,” says Amukele. “So, our hospitals will have diagnostic results far more quickly. And, when a first responder arrives to the scene of an accident, he or she will be met by a medical delivery drone carrying the correct blood product. Together, we will most certainly improve care and save more lives.”
Authors of this study are include Timothy K. Amukele MD PhD, and Jeff Street, Department of Pathology, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Christine LH Snozek PhD and James Hernandez MD, Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology, Mayo Clinic College of Medicine, Mayo Clinic in Arizona, Phoenix and Scottsdale, Arizona. Ryan G. Wyatt, Matthew Douglas MD, and Richard Amini MD, Department of Emergency Medicine, University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona.
Funding for this study was provided by Peter Kovler of the Blum-Kovler Foundation.