Drones are taking off in healthcare — and we shouldn’t be surprised

The pursuit of innovative solutions is ingrained in healthcare's history.
4 March 2020

The drones are circling in the healthcare sector. Source: Shutterstock

Twenty nineteen was an exciting year for drone delivery. UPS got the green light to operate a “drone airline” and according to Unmanned Airspace45 countries are working towards allowing similar initiatives, as regulatory approvals make slow but steady headway. 

We might be quick to assume it’s e-commerce players that are leading the way with drone deployment, in efforts to overcome the last-mile delivery challenge. But the healthcare sector, always eager to advance with the latest innovation, is proving to be one of the most active sectors so far. 

In fact, the actioning of innovative solutions is ingrained in the history of healthcare. With lives hanging in the balance, the industry has always been quick to enlist the resources available at the time, whatever it takes.

In 1925, for example, sled dogs were the savior of a small Alaskan town of Nome when it was hit with a deadly diphtheria epidemic. To save the town’s inhabitants, 20 teams of sled dogs braved through a 674 miles journey of brutal winter conditions to transport a vital anti-toxin. 

A statue in Central Park, NY of ‘Balto’ — one of the huskies involved in the supply run — is tribute to the medicine’s perseverance to find life-saving solutions. Source: Shutterstock

Fast forward to today, and hospitals and healthcare firms are deploying drone technology to transport medical documents, specimens, and even organs within medical institutions, or between campus buildings that may be scattered around a congested city.

For instance, UPS joined hands with Kaiser Permanente, one of the top US healthcare providers and nonprofit health plans to launch a new drone logistics venture. The program explores ways for UPS Flight Forward to deliver healthcare supplies between the provider’s 39 hospitals

“We move millions of supplies and equipment in and around our 7.5 million square feet of medical space and to the homes of our 12.4 million members,” said Kaiser Permanente Chairman and CEO Bernard J. Tyson.

“This drone project will allow us to think into the future about additional possibilities of perfecting logistics and meeting the ever-growing demands on our enterprise.”

The University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore is among the first to test run drones to deliver a donor kidney for transplantation surgery. Following the success of its initial trial, the medical center is working on commercializing drone deliveries and eventually, flights could transport organs to as far as Rochester, Duluth or Fargo. 

It isn’t just the States that recognizes drone deliveries as a fast and safe approach to transporting medical supplies. 

In Germany, the Federal Ministry for Transportation and Digital Infrastructure has been injecting funds into a joint research project to demonstrate the use of drones in a project dubbed Medifly, which has been trialed extensively in Hamburg — one of the largest cities in Germany after Berlin. 

Medifly aims to showcase the applications of unmanned deliveries in an urban environment and assists hospitals in delivering tissue samples to nearby pathology labs for immediate testing. 

The massive growth of aerial deliveries in the medical sector is attributed to the nature of the technology that promises to glide over traffic, reducing wait times for blood test results and treatments. Ultimately, it can bring new, life-saving efficiencies, whether the impacts are direct, or as a knock-on effect.  

Much like how university campuses are exploring how autonomous robotic technology can be utilized to deliver supplies and food deliveries around their sites, healthcare groups often also benefit from closed environments, where they have control over deployment and regulatory leeway. Although this isn’t stopping them from seeking broader horizons.

From virtual reality to IoT, and AI to blockchain, the healthcare industry is unafraid to embrace and pioneer applications of the latest technology. If drones can shave off valuable minutes and improve operational efficiency, it’s a matter of time before the site of them becomes commonplace in the airspace around hospitals.

Whether we’ll build statues of them in Central Park is another question, though.