Drones in healthcare: Blood transportation and beyond

Bill Wimberley,

Head of Business Development, WINGCOPTER GmbH (Germany)

Drones in healthcare: Blood transportation and beyond

11 June 2021 | 13min

Quick Takes

  • Drones are revolutionizing the way blood and other medical supplies are being transported around the world

  • The various use cases for drones in healthcare demonstrate their ability to deliver products quickly, safely and cost-efficiently

  • Involvement of regulatory agencies early on when investigating the use of drones in healthcare is key to move forward more smoothly and effectively

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, are improving medical care, including the safe and fast delivery of blood and blood products.  

Drone industry expert, Bill Wimberley, shares his expert knowledge on the opportunities and challenges of these pilotless aircrafts in healthcare to save lives and help optimize resources.

How drones are transforming healthcare

HT: What unmet needs, specifically in healthcare, did you set out to overcome with Wingcopter?

Bill Wimberley: There’s a need by the medical community to move pharmaceuticals, lab tests, diagnostics, blood, and small medical devices, quickly, from point A to point B. This is challenging today in rural areas with disconnected communities that cannot be served sufficiently by the current healthcare system. 

While this is a global challenge, it is even more pronounced in developing countries. In Southeast Asia, for example, you see disconnected communities, rural communities, and islands, which are all grossly underserved, from a medical perspective.

Drones can service those areas if they are designed to fly far, fast, and carry adequate payload (i.e. carrying medical items). 

Drones in healthcare: Blood transportation and beyond

Blood product and hazardous material transportation

HT: What are the most important use cases for drones currently evolving in healthcare? 

Bill Wimberley: I see 5 use cases for drones that are going to transform and improve healthcare in the near future.

1) Blood product and hazardous material transportation: Hazardous material products have to be delivered safely and according to specific hazardous materials (hazmat) regulations. This is not necessarily a use case that fulfils an unmet need for the medical industry, because clearly, it is already being done, however, in many cases, it is very expensive and, in some situations, it is time critical. 

For example, if you transport a blood sample by truck on a bad road in a developing country and it is bouncing around and vibrating, you can damage the blood. In addition, blood is temperature sensitive, so you have to transport it from point A to point B within a certain temperature range. Congestion in cities can also cause many problems to transport these products in a smooth and timely manner. Drones can solve a lot of these problems.

2) Vaccine and medicine delivery: Drones can increase the accessibility to, and speed of delivery for, life-saving medications and vaccines. For example, Wingcopter delivered children’s vaccines three years ago in Vanuatu, an island state in the Pacific. We have also delivered insulin off the coast of Ireland as a test case for future regular deliveries. Currently, we are preparing the delivery of COVID-19 vaccines in Africa and Southeast Asia.

We’re in the pioneering days of using drones for medical delivery. There is a lot being learned, a lot being tested, and it will evolve rapidly over the next 18 months.

3) Diagnostics: One of the biggest use cases for drones is in diagnostics. Some diagnostic tests are time and temperature sensitive, so when a sample is taken from a patient, it has to be sent to the lab and the test must be performed within a specific timeframe, which may be as short as 2 hours. This is where the disconnected communities come into play and where an emerging and growing opportunity for drones lies.

Not every hospital, clinic or even pharmacy has the same diagnostic tests readily available, so it is fairly common for couriers to be sent back and forth between healthcare system structures and campuses. A drone can fly fast and far and carry quite a significant payload, helping overcome the time pressure to perform a diagnostic test. 

4) Organ transfers: Due to the limited time window to move organs from donor to patient, often between 4-36 hours depending on the organ type,1 the need for ultra-fast transportation, like private jet charter or helicopter is imperative. Drones have the ability to make organ delivery faster, safer, and more cost-effective. 

While the use of drones to transfer organs is a legitimate use case, it may require another year or two before this can be done effectively. There are companies doing this now, but they are mostly in the testing phase. 

5) Transport of small medical devices: The other legitimate use case for drones is for small medical devices like automated external defibrillators (AEDs). Some companies have asked if our drone can go from the hospital, or from the emergency medical services, to an accident or disaster site to deliver AEDs or other kinds of small medical devices. The answer is yes, however, the aviation regulators will not allow this yet, but, the time is surely coming.

Geographic, social, and economic factors of drone technology

HT: Blood product transfers have been estimated to grow from 24% from 2019-2025.2 Do you see this growth occurring mainly in emerging markets? What geographical, social, or economic factors have to be in place for this technology to be more easily adopted?

Bill Wimberley: The first approval layer will depend on aviation regulations: Where will the various aviation authorities allow or disallow drones to operate in the airspace? All the drone companies all over the world are attempting to earn the right to fly in the same air space as manned aircraft operators. 

The second approval layer is going to be hazardous materials: At what point will the authorities allow this kind of thing to regularly be transported? There are people experimenting with it now, such as in parts of Africa, and other countries, mostly because the regulations there tend to not be as strict and their airspace is not as crowded. 

It’s really the regulations that are going to determine the speed at which drones will be used in healthcare. The capability of the drone technology is not the issue. The drones can easily carry and deliver blood, for instance. 

Drones in healthcare: Blood transportation and beyond

COVID-19 has accelerated the use of drones in healthcare

COVID-19 has accelerated some aspects of healthcare delivery by drone. Things that probably wouldn’t have even been thought of maybe a year ago, are now being piloted or put into action, such as the use of drones for medical transport.  

For example, we are currently looking at delivering vaccines with some partners in Indonesia. When you look at Indonesia geographically, you see thousands of islands and for the most part, many of them are disconnected. Some big companies, such as big pharmaceuticals, have looked at that and said, “People are going to die if they don’t get a vaccine.” Yet, getting a vaccine to them is very difficult because the villages on these islands are so spread out and oftentimes disconnected or poorly connected.

So, what you’re going to see is an accelerated use of drones because it can be the cheapest and most efficient solution. You can’t take a helicopter and fly to thousands of islands. You can do some of them, and I’m sure they’re doing that already, but drones will speed up that process. 

We’re talking life or death in some of these cases and you and I both know that COVID-19 is not the last pandemic we’re going to see. So, as we organize ourselves to be able to cope with this reality we may get past the hesitation of the regulators and they will probably become quicker at approving these kinds of use cases.

Barriers, restrictions and challenges within the aviation space

HT: What main barriers do you see for the use of drones in healthcare?

Bill Wimberley: Right now, the only things authorized to fly in the airspace are airlines, medical helicopters, tourist helicopters, police helicopters, private aviation, etc., which have been approved by the various regulators. Now we’re bringing in another set of aircrafts that have to share that same airspace, so the regulators and drone companies globally are looking at this and saying, “How can we do this safely,” because there will be an inevitable explosion of drones around the world into the airspace.

You and I don’t want a drone to fly into our Lufthansa flight and cause it to crash. So, as a drone manufacturer, we have to prove to the regulators that we can fly safely, that we can avoid obstacles automatically, and that we are a good steward of the airspace that we are allowed to fly in.

In the US, for example, the level of safety that must be demonstrated by a drone is dependent on the density of the population below the fly zone. The regulators think of this as a density limitation with respect to risk.  The lower the population the less likely a drone is to harm anyone if an unexpected incident occurs.

The next level of higher population density would require higher levels of safety experience and proof by the UAV operator. The highest level of population density, and consequentially requiring the highest level of safety, would be, for example, flying over New York City or flying over Zurich. And the only way to earn the right to fly in the highest levels of population density is to prove to regulators that you can make it successfully through each of these levels safely and reliably with many logged flight hours.

All regulators are taking a very cautious approach to allowing drones to fly. Drone companies have to prove that they are able to operate in accordance to high safety standards before they’ll ever be permitted to fly over cities.

Collaboration and transparency with regulatory bodies is key

HT: At what moment did you involve the regulatory bodies when developing your drone solution for medical delivery?  

Bill Wimberley: From the time we conceived of the idea for our drone, we started working with the regulators and expert operators. It makes no sense in aviation to develop something and then say, “Hey, guys, will you approve this?” 

What we have to do, and what we are doing at every step of the way is designing, building and operating our aircraft in full compliance with the most stringent of aviation regulations where we intend to fly.  And so, we are collaborating very closely with the regulators, not only in the US but also in Europe, Australia, Indonesia, Japan, and all over the world. 

HT: What regulatory bodies are involved in the approval of drone use for medical delivery? 

Bill Wimberley: Because it’s a drone and flying in the airspace, a regulatory body for aviation such as the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) in the US must be involved. Because a hazardous and medical material like blood may be the cargo, the Department of Transportation and the FDA (U.S. Food & Drug Association) would also be involved. 

Medical delivery with drones is a new field and the regulations governing them are still in development. The way in which the regulatory bodies will come together and collaborate going forward with drones is rapidly evolving. They’ve already worked this out carrying medical supplies on helicopters or planes, so you can be sure that we and others are in discussions right now about how all that’s going to work.

The role of data collection and data accessibility 

HT: What role does data collection and data accessibility play and how important is it in shaping the industry?

Bill Wimberley: We are building a cloud-based data management system that includes machine learning and artificial intelligence to not only collect data, but to also analyze and make sense of it. In our case, the collected data is primarily about the operations of the aircraft, but it will evolve quickly into the cargo aspect, which is in development, as we speak.

HT: Is data collected and necessary for regulatory bodies to see the value that medical drones can deliver? 

Bill Wimberley: Value will be measured based on both economic impact and medical impact. From an economic impact, is the delivery of supplies via drones cost-effective and efficient as compared to other methods? This will evolve and become more and more economically viable over time as the price of drone operations decreases and their efficiency and battery-life increases. 

The medical impact is easier to demonstrate and the most exciting aspect of medical delivery. For example, if I send a drone to provide something that will save a person’s life, with blood or with insulin for example, the return on investment (ROI), in terms of medical impact, will be shown relatively quickly and cost per delivery will be far less important.  This aspect of medical delivery was the impetus for the founding of Wingcopter by our original three Founders.  In everything we do, we focus on “improving and saving lives, everywhere!”

The role of drones in the future of healthcare 

HT: How do you envisage the future of the healthcare supply chain in about 10 years in regards to drone use?

Bill Wimberley: You will see drones as a critical path once the return on investment is revealed, and once the evidence is there that lives are being saved, which is already accumulating. 

As previously stated, drones are currently in the air around the world solving problems. You will see an explosion in their use to an almost incalculable level over the next 10 years. Just like in manned aviation, the worst thing that could happen for the growing drone industry would be a setback where a drone crashes and does harm to an individual or property.  Of course, we’re all very cognizant of this and we are working very hard to ensure that this never happens. Aviation is not a flawless industry, but you will see greater safety, greater capabilities, greater payloads, and more medical supplies delivered. 

Medical is the top of the pyramid of opportunity for drones, no doubt about it.

Healthcare driving the regulatory change for UAVs 

HT: Is the use of drones in healthcare shaping the regulatory landscape for their use in other industries?

Bill Wimberley: Healthcare is one area driving the regulatory changes needed in order to fly drones, and it is paving the way for other industries. Saving and improving lives is different from delivering a pair of shoes to someone from an eCommerce site. While you will surely see eCommerce delivering things with drones, you will not see the expansion and the volume that you will see in the medical sector, in my opinion. 

Medical companies around the world see the value and want to play some role in evolving the medical drone field. There are early adopters, and then there are “wait and see” companies, but the early adopters are quite aggressive right now with wanting to participate in developing and innovating this medical delivery space.

Bill Wimberley In his role as Head of Business Development, Bill focuses on building strategic partnerships toward innovative drone solutions around the World for Wingcopter. Bill has been in aviation since he was 16 and high-tech for over 35 years with a focus during the last 20 years on startups and building early stage technology companies. Bill is a licensed drone pilot in the US and a certified leadership trainer. Even though traveling worldwide for business, Bill calls Austin, Texas, US as his home base.

References

  1. Donor Alliance, Inc. (2019). Article available from https://www.donoralliance.org/newsroom/donation-essentials/what-is-the-time-frame-for-transplanting-organs/ [Accessed June 2021]
  2.  Global Market Insights, Inc. (2019). Article available from (https://www.gminsights.com/industry-analysis/medical-drones-market [Accessed June 2021]