Whether they are disrupting flights at London’s Gatwick Airport or racing around stadiums in one of the world’s newest sports, drones are being put to use in an ever wider variety of ways.
Now, India may join a growing list of countries that use the unmanned aerial vehicles for transporting medical materials. Officials are looking into using drones to beat traffic and get organs to transplant patients faster than ever.
The idea comes as the country works on introducing regulations on drone flights.
Although the plan is in its early stages, Jayant Sinha, a junior aviation minister, said that one possible use of the technology is “drone corridors” between drone ports built on the roofs of hospitals.
“One of the applications for drones that has come forward is an application to transport organs using drones,” Sinha said, “so that is something that we have discussed with a large hospital company that is transporting organs right now and has found it to be very difficult to transport organs, given how crowded Indian streets are.”
Because of the time-sensitive nature of organ transport, Indian authorities sometimes organize “green corridors” that part traffic to allow vehicles carrying donor organs to reach their destination in good time, Sinha said, but drones offer a better alternative.
How drones could be used to save lives
“You do it with drones, then it just goes in the sky, and nobody’s impacted. Organ transport happens very efficiently and in a very safe way,” he said.
Sinha said that such an initiative would rely on the private sector rather than the Indian government, with private hospital chain Apollo Hospitals in discussions over a possible drone trial in the city of Chennai.
US trial suggests drones are safe for organ transport
Dr. Joseph Scalea of the University of Maryland School of Medicine has carried out a successful trial of organ-transporting drones in the United States.
Scalea and his team made a number of test flights carrying a human kidney in March and published their findings in the IEEE Journal of Translational Engineering in Health and Medicine in November.
Scalea said his institution once paid $80,000 to transport one liver on a charter flight, and he believes that drones could cut costs while revolutionizing the use of transplant organs.
Barriers to wider adoption of civilian drone flights fall into three broad categories, he said: human impact, technological and regulatory.
The first is the least tangible, concerned with the effect on the doctor-patient relationship if organs are transported by drone; the second covers worries about speed, range and safety in a sphere that is in continuous development; and the third concerns the rules and regulations covering drone flights, about which authorities have been wary.
“Organ transport is an ideal initial use for civilian drone flights,” Scalea said, explaining that a small number of time-sensitive flights would be easier for authorities like the Federal Aviation Administration to control than other potential applications such as grocery deliveries, which would involve a far larger number of drones and flights.
“I think the FAA would appreciate a program like the one I am suggesting,” he said, given that unmanned vehicles cut costs and reduce the risks posed by crewed aircraft such as helicopters and light aircraft that are currently used to transport organs.
With drone technology advancing quickly and signs of movement in the regulatory environment, Scalea said, his main concern is convincing organ donors, recipients and their families that drone transport is the future.
Medical deliveries by drone are increasingly common
If organ transport drones become a reality, India would become the latest country where drones have been tested for health care and humanitarian missions.
Unmanned aerial vehicles have transported blood samples during tests by academics at Johns Hopkins Hospital in the United States, and teams at Delft Technical University in the Netherlands are testing them to deliver emergency equipment, such as defibrillators, to quickly care for patients after a heart attack.
Researchers at William Carey University in Mississippi are studying how drones could carry medical kits to disaster victims before ambulances arrive, and on December 19, the United Nations children’s organization, UNICEF, organized the transportation of a vaccine across mountainous terrain in the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu. The delivery was carried out by an Australian company called Swoop Aero.
“Today’s small flight by drone is a big leap for global health,” UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta H. Fore said in a statement. “With the world still struggling to immunize the hardest to reach children, drone technologies can be a game changer for bridging that last mile to reach every child.”
California startup Zipline has become one of the trailblazers in a burgeoning medical drone transport industry, with successful operations in Rwanda since 2016 and a new agreement to start transporting 148 medicines and vaccines by drone in Ghana from January.
Despite some local controversy over its cost, Zipline is optimistic about the plan, which will serve 14 million people at 2,000 health facilities, company spokesman Justin Hamilton wrote in an email.
“At full tilt, we’ll have 4 bases in Ghana and close to 120 drones in operation, making it the world’s largest drone delivery network of any kind,” Hamilton wrote.
However, other sources are more cautious in their predictions on the immediate impact of drones.
Although Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) has used drones to create enhanced maps as part of a humanitarian mission in Malawi, David Moeneclaey, a geographic information system drone technician with the organization, said that the use of drones has been limited by official authorization, concerns about the potential for crashes with other aircraft and the association of these devices with military operations in some parts of the world.
“I’m sure that in the future, we will use them more and more,” he said, “but today, for us, it’s complicated.”
Providing a friendly regulatory environment
In December, the Indian aviation ministry announced that owning and using drones would no longer be illegal. The ministry’s move allows people to register and document their equipment.
Indian authorities plan to introduce a second set of drone regulations in mid-January, said Sinha, the aviation minister, and aim to take advantage of the technology to boost the economy.
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“Today, we have taken the first step towards our vision of seeing millions of drones fly in India,” he said in a statement. “Drones are a frontier technology which has the potential to leapfrog India’s economic growth.”
While India forges ahead in providing a set of rules, it remains to be seen whether other conditions encourage drone companies to start flying.
“Now, when it’s exactly going to happen, that really depends on the drone operators,” Sinha said. “Our job is to provide the regulatory framework within which it can be done safely and securely, and that’s what we are providing.”
CNN’s Sugam Pokharel and Sreoshi Mukherjee contributed to this report.