In the past, drones have been used to deliver goods, study ancient pyramids and even monitor Early Bronze Age sites. A recent experiment, conducted jointed by the scientists at John Hopkins University and Uganda-based Makerere University, shows how these flying automatons can also be used to transport blood samples, of remotely-located patients, to diagnostic laboratories for quicker analysis.
Health care facilities, in certain developing countries, are quite sparse and far between. In such places, swift delivery of blood samples to labs could pave the way for faster diagnosis and treatment of diseases. Led by Dr. Timothy Kien Amukele, the new study aims at improving access to health care, especially in rural areas, through a drone-based blood sample delivery system. Speaking about the project, Amukele said:
A drone could go 100 km in 40 minutes. 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.
For the experiment, recently published in the PLOS One journal, the researchers drew six separate blood samples from each of the 56 healthy adult volunteers. Following this, half of the collected samples were carefully packed and sealed to prevent leakage. They were then loaded into a 3D Robotics-designed Aero fixed-wing drone and flown around, at less than 100 meters (nearly 328 ft) from the ground, for about six to 38 minutes. All the flights took place on days when the outside temperature was around 70º F (approx. 21º C).
Both the flown and the unflown samples were later brought to the John Hopkins Core Laboratory, where each of them underwent 33 of the most common blood tests, including the ones measuring glucose, sodium and RBC count. Previously, the scientists were worried that the vibrations caused during take-off and landing, of the drone, would alter the samples. Upon testing, however, the researchers found very little difference, in the results, for the two sets of samples. Amukele explained:
When you launch [this] drone, you have to throw it really hard into the air by hand, and then when it lands it lands on its belly, so it smacks the ground… Biological samples can be very sensitive and fragile. 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, so that was cool.
According to the scientists, the bicarbonate test, which measures the blood’s carbon dioxide levels, did yield somewhat-varying results for few of the flown and unflown samples. While the team is still uncertain as to what caused the difference in results, Amukele believes that it was likely because the blood samples sat for nearly eight hours before the test was performed. Open fully developed, the drone-based blood delivery system would probably undergo field tests in Uganda and other African nations. He said:
Now we’ve opened the door to really try it out for real patients and using real samples in real environments. That’s the next big hurdle.
Source: John Hopkins University