Researchers safely transport blood samples via 3-hour drone flight in hot climate
Results of hematology and chemistry tests performed on blood samples flown for 3 hours on mid-level drones showed that long drone flights of biological samples are feasible.
However, stringent environmental controls are required to ensure consistent results, according to Timothy K. Amukele, MD, PhD, and colleagues.
“Most tests were unchanged by the drone flight, but there were changes in glucose and potassium levels,” Amukele, pathologist at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, and colleagues wrote. “These changes were due to the long flight and high temperatures; however, these factors can be controlled.”
As HemOnc Today previously reported, the researchers showed in an earlier study that laboratory tests performed on blood samples flown on hobby-sized drones yielded results comparable to those performed on samples that never left the ground.
In that proof-of-concept study, the biologics were transported in ambient temperatures for maximum flight times of 40 minutes — equivalent to 40 km — in a fixed-wing vehicle and 27 minutes, equivalent to 13 km to 20 km, in a multirotor.
However, “these times and distances were not sufficient to address the needs of real-world drone networks,” the researchers wrote.
In their most recent study, Amukele and colleagues sought to address the stability of biological samples during prolonged drone flights.
Researchers obtained 84 hematology and chemistry samples from 21 adult participants.
Forty-two samples remained stationary, and 42 samples were flown for 3 hours in a custom-made active cooling box mounted on a drone. Upon completion of the flight, investigators performed 19 chemistry and hematology tests on all samples.
Results showed an 8% bias for glucose and 6.2% bias for potassium levels among flown samples.
The mean temperature of the flown samples was 24.8°C during transportation to the flight field and during the flight, whereas mean temperature of stationary samples was 27.3°C.
HemOnc Today spoke with Amukele about their latest research, what still must be perfected in subsequent studies, and the potential for widespread use of blood sample transport via drones.
Question: Can you describe the success you have had so far in your research efforts?
Answer: There are three things needed to get to the point where we will use drones for everyday health care: sample stability and figuring out how to keep samples safe on a drone; engineering of the drones so they can be used for medical purposes; and regulation. So far, we have had success in all three domains. In terms of sample stability, our most recent research — during which we established a world record for length of flight — was our fourth published paper. So far, we have dealt with microbiology specimens, oncology specimens and blood products. We have now successfully completed this long flight that shows we can fly the drones over long distances in a hot climate. Still, the ultimate success will be when hospitals have their own drones and drone crews.
Q: What types of challenges have you encountered?
A: We have known all along that we would have to keep biological samples safe when using a drone. We did not anticipate having to do a lot of the engineering or public policy, and we have had to do a lot of that. For example, on the engineering front, we have had to create and customize things that simply do not exist in the marketplace. We built a ‘cooling box’ that can run off of the drone battery. Although cooling boxes can be purchased online, they generally are too heavy for drone use or they have to be plugged into an outlet on the wall, which obviously does not work with a drone. We also built our own drones, which is something we did not plan on doing. We also built biohazard boxes that meet code for biological hazardous material — yet another thing that did not previously exist. However, money has been a challenge because funding is not set up for this type of research.
Q: What new insights have you gained into the effects that drone transport has had on blood samples and blood products?
A: First, I want to emphasize that blood samples are different from blood products. Blood samples are pooled from someone who is ill and we are trying to find out what illness the person has, whereas blood products are items that have been tested and are of good enough quality to go into someone’s veins. We have done the most extensive testing with blood samples. We found that, in general, they are not affected by drone flight when the drone flies for less than 40 minutes, which is equivalent to about 40 km. Glucose and potassium are most affected by longer flights. One way to mitigate this is to control the temperatures well, and we can do this through the cooling boxes that we have engineered.
Q: Is this approach being used anywhere ?
A: Not in the same way that we are using it. The only sustained effort using drones for medical transport is by the company Zipline in Rwanda. Representatives of that company are transporting blood products to remote hospitals using drones. However, Zipline does a one-way transport. We intend to have two-way transport of medical samples, including pickups and drop-offs.
Q: When do you anticipate more widespread use?
A: My best guess is probably within 5 years. Over the next couple years, we will see more examples of drones being used to transport medical cargo to hard-to-reach places. The United States will not get on board for a few more years, as regulators are being cautious when analyzing this new technology. Demonstrations such as ours help to build confidence. We can now say that we have flown hundreds of samples for hundreds of miles and that it was done safely and effectively. We now have the data to prove this.
Q: Is there anything else that you would like to mention?
A: We do not have as much safety data as we would like with drones, but the preliminary data we do have suggest that drones are safe. Drone transport may even be safer than car transport. Also, although drones are unmanned, they are not unmonitored. We always know where they are, so — in some ways — they are tracked more closely than a car. The incorporation of drones into our daily lives really is a technology that is built for tracking. – by Jennifer Southall
For more information:
Timothy K. Amukele, MD, PhD, can be reached at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, 733 N. Broadway, Baltimore, MD 21205.
Disclosure: Amukele reports no relevant financial disclosures.