Johns Hopkins researchers have set a new record in the up-and-coming field of medical drones.
A team from the university successfully transported human blood samples across 161 miles of Arizona desert.
The samples maintained their proper temperature during the three-hour flight, ensuring they would be viable for use after landing and further proving the concept of using drones to deliver vital medical supplies.
Johns Hopkins researchers have set a new record in the up-and-coming field of medical drones. The team successfully transported human blood samples across 161 miles of Arizona desert. This test shows progress for the team’s first in New Jersey in 2016 (pictured)
‘We expect that in many cases, drone transport will be the quickest, safest, and most efficient option to deliver some biological samples to a laboratory from rural or urban settings,’ said Timothy Amukele, assistant professor of pathology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the paper’s senior author.
In the report published in the American Journal of Clinical Pathology, the team details an experiment in which they collected 84 pairs of blood samples at the University of Arizona in Tucson.
Next, they drove them 76 miles to an airfield where they loaded one of each sample into a Latitude Engineering HQ-40 drone and kept their pairs (the control group) in the car at the airfield with active cooling to maintain target temperature.
The goal was to see if the samples that took flight with the drones would hold up – if successful, this would be the longest drone flight of medical samples.
The samples flown by drone were contained in a temperature-controlled chamber designed by the Johns Hopkins team.
Prior to the flight, the average temperature of the flown samples was 24.8 degrees C (76.6 degrees F) compared with 27.3 degrees C (81.1 degrees F) for the samples kept on the ground with the cooling agent.
The team then flew the drone for 161 miles in the restricted airspace at the military test range.
After the three-hour flight, all of the samples from both the drone and ground were transported 62 miles by car to the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Arizona, where they were tested for 17 of the 19 most common chemistry and hematology tests that would reveal how the samples held up.
The samples flown by drone were contained in a temperature-controlled chamber designed by the Johns Hopkins team (pictured)
Next, the team loaded one of each sample into a Latitude Engineering HQ-40 drone and kept the others (the control group) in the car at the airfield with active cooling to maintain target temperature
The flown and not-flown paired samples showed similar results, marking the flight a success.
Among the two groups, the results for red blood cell, white blood cell, platelet counts, sodium levels, and other measures were all similar.
Glucose and potassium levels showed ‘statistically significant but small differences.’
This variation occurs in standard transportation (such as motor vehicle) as well, and the difference was actually caused by chemical degradation from slightly warmer temperature in the not-flown samples.
The team has studied how drone transportation affects this chemical, hematological, and the samples over 20-mile distances and found no negative issues.
They believe drone transportation could be the most effective transportation method for medical supplies.
Amukele (right) says ‘We expect that in many cases, drone transport will be the quickest, safest, and most efficient option to deliver some biological samples to a laboratory from rural or urban settings,’
‘Drones can operate where there are no roads, and overcome conditions that disable wheeled vehicles, traffic and other logistical inefficiencies that are the enemy of improved, timely patient diagnoses and care,’ Amukele said.
‘Drones are likely to be the 21st century’s best medical sample delivery system.’
In June 2016, the team conducted the first test of the idea in New Jersey.
Ahead of the test flight, he explained that while the concept of delivery drones is picking up and experts say drones are becoming a more valuable tool in many humanitarian operations, biological samples ‘are not like a shoe or a book; they are pretty fragile items.’
‘For example, if blood is being carried on the back of motorcycle, shaking caused by the bike and its vibrations can ruin the sample,’ said Amukele, a volunteer adviser to Flirtey, the company that conducted the tests in New Jersey.
‘We want to see what tasks the drones can perform and if the drones have similar effects on samples they carry.’
In this first test (pictured), the drone carried a box of simulated blood, urine, and stool samples, from an onshore medical relief camp to half a nautical mile away to land on a small barge small barge on the Delaware Bay
In this first test, the drone carried a box of simulated blood, urine, and stool samples, from an onshore medical relief camp to half a nautical mile away to land on a small barge small barge on the Delaware Bay.
Now having completed a much longer trip, the team is making progress to make medical drone delivery a life-saving reality.
‘The potential is indeed huge for drones to deliver small, lifesaving packages, such as vaccines,’ said George Fenton, director of humanitarian innovations at World Vision International, a London-based humanitarian aid, development, and advocacy organization.
While there is no official public record, this flight time surpasses the John Hopkins team’s own record and those of others who have attempted medical drone delivery, including Zipline, Matternet, and Vayu.
While they haven’t made their flight times public, it’s not possible their tests lasted more than 40 kiliometers because of possible flight time of the aircrafts they used.