The good drones: air delivery of blood samples could save lives

Story highlights

  • 38 million people die annually from non-communicable diseases
  • The rise in disease makes rapid delivery of blood tests crucial for diagnosis
  • Drones could deliver blood samples quickly and cheaply and are now being tested

Vital Signs is a monthly program bringing viewers health stories from around the world

(CNN)They exist, if you know where to look.

FAA approved drone fields are dotted around the United States -- open fields where you can legally indulge your drone hobby.
Drive north of Baltimore, on the East Coast of the United States, for an hour or so and you'll find one. Every now and then, you'll see a team there, wearing gloves and lab coats, flying a small white drone.
    This special white drone is made of Styrofoam, weighs just four pounds, and costs less than $100. This hobby-grade drone could represent the future of medical delivery.

    The diseases killing 38 million people a year

    Back down in Baltimore, the Core Laboratory at Johns Hopkins Hospital is busy.
    Medical samples are tested here -- everything from hair to urine to blood. Some 10,000 samples come through here every day and the need for testing is on the rise.
    Non-communicable diseases, such as heart disease or diabetes, are now responsible for more deaths than infectious diseases. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), non-communicable diseases kill 38 million people worldwide each year.
    These diseases are not passed from person to person, but develop over time and require continued testing, often over the lifetime of a patient. This needs access to labs for biological samples and tests.

    Going off road

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    Dr. Timothy Amukele is a pathologist at Johns Hopkins. After visiting labs around the world, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, Amukele had an idea.
    If access to labs and transporting samples for medical testing were some of the biggest hurdles -- because of traffic, poor roads and lack of accessibility -- why not remove those factors altogether?
    Why not fly the samples in a drone?
    "The idea for using drones first came from the problems of moving samples internationally," Amukele said.
    "There's a need in places that are really poor that don't have roads. And then in places like here in the United States, we have issues with traffic."

    The need for speed

    When you get your blood drawn, or give a urine sample at the doctor's office, testing is rarely done at the same location. According to Amukele, most clinics are primarily collection sites that can perform a few key tests, but not the full range. The latter requires samples to be moved.
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    "Speed is everything," Amukele said. "If it sits there for a long time, at some point the specimen starts deteriorating. It's not so useful anymore."
    A lack of obstructions would speed up the process -- that's where the drones come in.
    "A drone is a transport mechanism," Amukele said. "I think in 5-10 years it will be just like having a motorcycle, where it doesn't matter what you put on it, as long as you package it safely."
    The first of its kind, Amukele ran a proof-of-concept study to see if blood samples could be successfully transported via drone. Six blood samples were taken from 56 volunteers. Half of the samples were taken to the Hopkins lab and the other half were loaded on a drone and flown around for varying time periods between six to 38 minutes.
    Initial questions focused on the samples themselves, and if the drone flight would deteriorate them. Changes in air pressure and the shaking of the drone in the wind and during the take-off and landing were all concerns.
    But the drone test worked -- and Amukele was on to something.

    Using drones to save lives

    Amukele acknowledged this success is the first in a long line of steps. The regulations for drones differ in every country, and in many cases, are still being worked out. There are other questions too, like who would fly it? And how do they make it secure?
    The samples are packed in a special foam with a sponge that would fully absorb the specimens in case the drone were to crash.
    "It doesn't answer all the other questions," Amukele said. "But the key question was does the blood arrive ok, because if it doesn't arrive ok, then none of it matters."
    Perhaps the biggest hurdle now might be the word 'drone' itself.

    Changing reputations

    "When we say the word 'drones, people think of things that fly over their heads and kill their children," Amukele said.
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    That's not what we're talking about here. We're talking about small, unmanned flying systems. We're talking about a different way to transport goods."
    The use of drones for healthcare delivery is also being trialed elsewhere. Teams at Delft Technical University are testing them to deliver emergency equipment, such a defibrillators, to quickly care for patients after a heart attack. If successful, they could be used by ambulance services.
    Reports have also been made of "drone-ports" being piloted in Rwanda later this year where drones will be trialed to deliver blood and other emergency supplies.
    The next step for Amukele's team, however, is more testing. Further trials are estimated to be up and running in the United States, and abroad, within the next six months.
    "People are starting to realize that drones can be used for good," Amukele said. "Already, in the United States, they are being used for agriculture and film making, but what they haven't been used for is healthcare. Healthcare is the industry where we need this capacity."