Drones for Drugs: Potential of Unmanned Flight in Medicine

An assistant professor of pathology sees great potential for drones in patient care and research in both rich and poor countries.

AmukeleLifeguards use drones to monitor for sharks on California beaches. Drones plant trees, and spot endangered chimpanzees. Timothy Amukele studied how they can be used in medicine. He works at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and splits his time between Baltimore (US), Kampala (Uganda) and Blantyre (Malawi), where he is involved in the management of two medical laboratories. 

ResearchGate: What role do you see for drones in medicine?

Timothy Amukele: Drones have the ability to move small goods in a reliable manner. The need to move small goods in a reliable manner is a significant requirement in medicine. To illustrate, while there are about 300-400,000 clinics in the US, most laboratory testing occurs in a minority of these sites. The same pattern holds for pharmaceuticals. Many patients on long-term therapy (patients who’ve had organ transplants, or chemotherapy) are in their houses. However the supplies that they need are mostly in hospitals or pharmaceutical warehouses. That’s why I see drones as filling the need for reliable transportation of small biological samples.

RG: Do you see their usage becoming widespread for medical purposes?

Amukele: Yes, but the adoption rate will depend on changes in regulation and improvement in drone technology. Currently regulation of drone flight is trailing the technology by at least a decade. Medicine is inherently conservative so the medical system will likely wait for the regulations to catch up before there will be widespread adoption.

Current drone technology is also not ideal in terms of its safety profile. It would be great if drones had the ability to intelligently detect and avoid obstacles, rather than just follow pre-planned flight paths. People are working on this right now.

RG: What would be the benefit over other means of transportation? What would be the risks?

Amukele: The benefits are the ability to move items in places where there is poor road infrastructure or places where only a few goods need to be moved. For example, currently many, many couriers drive one or two lab samples over long distances (over 50 miles) because there is a medical need for it. However the cost (gas, driver salaries, wear and tear) is incredibly high especially for rural areas and makes no sense. This occurs in both rich and poor countries.

The risks are the same as for the transport of biological samples by other means. There are already internationally accepted criteria for the packaging of biological samples.

RG: Regulation could be an issue. What do you think about that?

Amukele: Beat you to the punch. Seriously though, I think early adopters of drone transport will have to apply to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for an exemption for a specific use. The FAA has already granted thousands of these licenses for other uses (for example in agriculture and real estate) but not widely for medical uses.

Photo courtesy of Alfred Grupstra.

This story also appeared on Popular Science and was mentioned in Khaleej Times.