by Jinesh Shah, BS, Samuel Lin, MD
Civilian drones are beginning to have applications in numerous fields, ranging from delivering shipped goods, to aerial surveillance, mapping topography, disaster relief, and even natural resource exploration. Increasingly, drones are available in different shapes and sizes, and their varied abilities have garnered popularity with civilian customers and media alike, and governments are debating legislation defining the scope of their use(1).
Commercial drones afford special benefits applicable to the practice of medicine, including being equipped with advanced cameras and the ability to carry heavy loads. Companies like Amazon and Google are already pushing the envelope on how to deliver small packages quickly, safely, and efficiently using drones. It is not difficult to envision this model being adopted and improvised to deliver medications, medical supplies, even custom made 3D printed implants and biomedical devices to remote locations, over relatively long distances, and in resource constrained settings. In fact, American company Matternet is trying to do just that. In partnership with Médecins Sans Frontières in Papua New Guinea and Haiti(2) , they are developing autonomous drones to help transport medicines, food, and water to areas afflicted by natural disasters. In other countries like Bhutan, where there are 0.3 physicians per 1,000 people, they are teaming up with the World Health Organization to deliver medications through inclement weather and mountainous terrain, and connect roadless rural communities to healthcare providers(3). By using drones, providers in these environments are able to save precious time and money without needing extensive infrastructure development. In addition, autonomous drones require minimal oversight, allowing providers to multiply their effects and further save on costs. Other shipping companies like DHL are already testing their “parcelcopter” to deliver medications and emergency goods daily to the island of Juist(4), and universities in England and Malaysia are utilizing drones to monitor spread of pathogens, research disease epidemiology, and track land-use changes and disease incidence in real time(5).
As we continue to find novel ways to utilize autonomous aerial drones, future applications include use by the military to carry supplies for wounded soldiers in areas of active conflict or over hazardous terrain. The lightweight and rapid maneuverability of drones combined with sophisticated cameras may someday equip physicians with tools to remotely diagnose and triage in real time to determine which patients needed medical intervention and what services would be most beneficial. In doing so, drones would not only improve efficiency in resource allocation, but also potentially save costs and valuable time.