Delivery Drones May Form a Blood Supply Network for Hospitals

Yet another application of drones that may change—and save—lives.

Image via Flickr user Banc de Sang i Teixits

Forget pizza and Amazon products—the Mayo Clinic wants to use drones to supply hospitals with precious medical supplies like blood.

“Blood is unique because it’s expensive and expires—platelets and thawed plasma last just five days—and the supply is very limited,” said Cornelius A. Thiels, D.O., a general surgery resident at Mayo Clinic's campus in Rochester, Minnesota in the statement. “In our region, the smallest critical access hospitals stock just two to six units of red cells and no fresh frozen plasma or platelets.”

In many areas, smaller hospitals are dependent on larger hospitals and blood banks to supply them with blood. For small- to medium-sized hospitals, single patient cases with massive bleeding have been known to deplete the hospital’s entire supply, and even larger hospitals sometimes struggle with providing specific blood types. When blood is urgently required, usually in critical circumstances such as mass casualty scenes or disasters, the vital fluid is almost always in short supply. Drones bearing blood and platelets would be able to bridge the gap in response time by taking off as soon as an EMS call comes in.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

Currently, blood is delivered through courier services or highway patrol. Aerial deliveries require a helicopter that can cost thousands of dollars to rent and an open area for the helicopter to land on. An unmanned aerial vehicle would not only save on costs, but also time by being able to travel over closed roads, get across rugged terrain, and land on virtually any platform.

Drones could also deliver drugs or supplies that are not typically stocked by hospitals, such as antivenin for snake bites or expensive drugs that are only essential in specific circumstances.

The drone industry is still in its developmental stages, often likened to the state of automobiles in the early 1900s before road regulations were fully developed. Currently, the Federal Aviation Administration only allows certain licensed operators to fly commercially. Besides the risks involved with miniature copters crowding U.S. airspace, the logistics of keeping blood cool and securely packaged are still being worked out.

But outside of the U.S., drones have already successfully delivered small aid packages to Hatian disaster victims in 2012, and in Papua New Guinea, Doctors Without Borders sent dummy TB test samples via drones from a remote village to a larger city.

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