|A proof-of-concept, initial study has shown that small unmanned aerial systems (UAS) could potentially be used to transport clinical blood specimens for diagnostics without damage to the specimens.|
In a first rigorous examination published about the impact of drone transport on biological samples, a team of clinical researchers and engineers, led by Timothy Kien Amukele, MD, PhD, pathologist at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine (Baltimore, MD, USA) and director of a collaboration with Makerere University in Uganda, found that results of common, routine tests on the blood samples were not affected by up to 40 minutes of sample-travel in hobby-sized drones. This could especially aid millions of people in developing nations where most tests are currently done by dedicated laboratories that can be scores of miles from remote clinics in rural and economically impoverished areas that lack, for example, good roads.
“Biological samples can be very sensitive and fragile,” said Dr. Amukele. That sensitivity makes even the pneumatic-tube systems used by many hospitals, for example, unsuitable for transporting blood for certain purposes. Of particular concern related to sample transport in drones is the sudden acceleration that marks the launch of the vehicle and the jostling when the drone lands on its belly. “Such movements could have destroyed blood cells or prompted blood to coagulate and I thought all kinds of blood tests might be affected, but our study shows they weren’t,” he added.
For the study, total of 6 blood samples were collected from each of 56 healthy adult volunteers at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Samples were driven to a flight site an hour’s drive from the hospital on days when the temperature was moderate. There, half the samples were held stationary (non-flight); the other half were packaged for protection during the in-flight environment and to prevent leakage, then loaded into a hand-launched fixed-wing drone and flown for periods of 6–38 minutes. Owing to Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules, the flights were conducted in an unpopulated area, kept below 100 meters and in the line-of-sight of the certified drone pilot.
Samples were driven back from the flight-field to the Johns Hopkins Hospital Core Laboratory, where 33 of the most common chemistry, hematology, and coagulation tests were performed (tests that together account for around 80% of all such tests performed), including for sodium, glucose, and red blood cell count.
Comparing lab results of the flown vs. non-flown samples from each volunteer showed that these flights essentially had no impact, although the precision of one blood test—for total carbon dioxide (the bicarbonate test)—did differ for some samples pairs. This may be because the blood sat for up to 8 hours before being tested, but whether the out-of-range results were due to this time lag or to the drone transport is unknown. Nevertheless, there were no consistent differences in results between the flown vs. non-flown blood.
“The ideal way to test that would be to fly the blood around immediately after drawing it, but neither the FAA nor Johns Hopkins would like drones flying around the hospital,” said Dr. Amukele.
The likely next step is a pilot study in Africa where clinics are sometimes 60 or more miles away from labs. “A drone could go 100 km in 40 minutes,” said Dr. Amukele, “They’re less expensive than motorcycles, are not subject to traffic delays, and the technology already exists for the drone to be programmed to “home” to certain GPS coordinates, like a carrier pigeon.”
Drones have already been tested as carriers of medicines to clinics in remote areas, but whether and how drones will be used to carry medicines and potentially infectious patient specimens over more populated areas will depend on laws and regulations.
The study, by Amukele TK, et al, was published July 29, 2015, in the journal PLOS One.
Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine