Drones: The Future of Medical Emergency Response?

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones have a wide range of applications for disaster relief. In 2015 a small drone (hexacopter) operated by Flirtey, an Australian company, flew over the mountainous terrain of Wise County, VA, and provided a shipment of medications to a make-shift clinic offered by a Remote Area Medical. This was the first such medical flight sanctioned by the Federal Aviation Administration. This makes drones create a huge impact in medical emergency response.

Since this time, the U.S. Department of Transportation has selected 10 state and local governments to test drones as part of the FAA’s Unmanned Aircraft System Integration Pilot Program.

It is not unreasonable to anticipate that drones will be many of our next emergency workers.

We already have seen how drones (remotely piloted aircrafts) can be used to deliver not only medicine, but also other equipment during disasters. In addition to transporting medicine, drones can also locate natural disasters in hard-to-reach areas such as radiation-filled “hot zones” where human access would be too dangerous to search for survivors across a debris-filled landscape. Furthermore they can use infrared sensors to detect human beings by their heat signature which is helpful in search and rescue scenarios. The milieu of sensors that can be packed into a drone can be used to help locate and save life in the midst of natural disasters.

On September 13, 2019 insulin was safely delivered a distance of 12 miles to patients in Ireland. Because insulin cannot be exposed to extreme heat, it was contained in an insulated parcel with temperature being monitored during the route and on its journey back, the drone was able to bring back a glucose sample for testing and thus the medical workers were able to monitor glycemic control remotely.

Medications are ideal cargo for drones because they are relatively light, but have great value. However, we do have larger drones today that can carry impressive weight.

The entry of drones in China and robots in South Korea and Singapore have already been used effectively in the global war on the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since 2016 the Zipline company, in our own country, has flown drones to thousands of medical flights delivering vaccines, blood, and other medical products in Rwanda, Ghana and later Tanzania and Vanuatu in the Pacific. It is no wonder that this same company is using drones for the delivery of vaccines, tests and medical supplies in our battle against the Coronavirus. During lockdown these drones can be used to deliver medications to quarantined patients and/or critical supplies to hospitals or other places where patients are cared for.

Diabetes Mellitus is one of the most common chronic diseases in the world with approximately 400 million people affected. Insulin is often needed in both achieving and maintaining glycemic control is critical and therefore this insulin is considered a lifesaving medication for patients with diabetes. In countries with underdeveloped infrastructure due to local terrain, such as the jungles of East Africa or the South Pacific islands delivering medicine and medical supplies is a perennial challenge. Rwanda is a good example of a drone-based relief operation in which Zipline delivered blood products since 2016.

Matternet is also an aviation company which is developing a network to transport medication to high-risk areas. A good example of this was when the United States used drones to look for survivors and transport medication, protecting its troops from any danger.

Compared to other countries, U. S. has been relatively late in its use of drones. It is believed that part of the reason is that because we are the richest and most powerful country in the world, we don’t see the need as clearly as others. Many of us don’t realize the risks of injury and death involved in transporting supplies by traditional methods.

Many of us may not seriously think of the difficulty and danger of delivering medical supplies and medicine in certain areas as large portions of America are sparsely populated with people living far from urban medical centers.

Weather conditions may render traditional delivery vehicles not only impractical, but also hazardous, such as roads with dense fog, deep snow or ice for cars, trucks and ambulances or dense fog or extremely heavy rain for airplanes or helicopters. In fact, the rate of accidents and deaths is the highest for helicopters. In addition, traffic conditions, such as rush hour, can slow down the delivery which can pose serious danger since, in some cases, timing can make the difference between life or death.

Another advantage of using unmanned vehicles is that they can be sent out to multiple cities or places by a single remote pilot whereas an airplane or helicopter requires pilots waiting in each individual city or rural location. Furthermore, the cost differential is immense, not only are the costs of the delivery vehicles significantly less, but so are the employee costs, since there is no need to pay an employee to travel the distance with a car (in the case of a helicopter pilot) or helicopter (in the case of an airplane pilot).

It should be obvious that there are numerous advantages to using unmanned vehicles in the delivery of medicine and medical supplies, especially in emergency situations. Although the use of drones raises technological and regulatory issues, the firefighters, police and U.S. Border Patrol already use drones successfully despite some concerns about civil liberty violations by law enforcement drones. Medical drones require higher standards than recreational drones because they must be capable of fulfilling missions beyond what is currently expected in the United States.

While it is understandable, at this time, to be careful about encouraging an unlimited amount of recreational use of drones for peoples’ enjoyment, the need for a delivery system (an Unmanned Aircraft System), that can minimize physical danger, and even death, should be a priority. The use of drones for public health, safety, and other vital public services are legitimate reasons to encourage our government to advance the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) as a medical delivery system, especially given the nation’s limited funds during the Norel Coronavirus crisis.

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