Editorial Feature

The Benefits of Medical Drones

Image Credit: Who is Danny | Shutterstock.com

Start-up Matternet is already using drones, also called unmanned aircraft systems (UAVs), to ferry medical supplies in countries outside of the U.S., including Haiti, Switzerland, and the Dominican Republic. While the use of UAVs in commerce is restricted by US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations, draft guidelines are now being produced given the great potential of the technology.

UAVs to Transport Medical Supplies

Transportation of medical supplies by motor vehicles and manned aircraft is expensive and slow, not ideal attributes for crisis and rescue situations. An unmet need is something off-road, such as a UAV, to bring supplies, including blood products or point-of-care diagnostics and medications, quickly and effectively to people in remote medical centers, disaster areas, and offshore vessels.

Matternet is working through the issues to open the door for such UAVs. Their drone called One, holds up to one kilogram, and needs only a small yard or rooftop for take off and landing. However the drone does require Matternet’s sensor-equipped landing pads at both ends (this ensures movement with an intentional flight plan). Traveling up to 40 mph, it moves about 10 miles in about 18 minutes and can withstand winds of up to 10 m/s (20 knots), moderate rain, and -10° to 50° C temperatures.

Powered by a battery, the drone moves along a route via Matternet’s smartphone app, which does not require a remote control. The app programs a route that intuits how it will work around potential obstacles. For example, routes will factor in

buildings and hills, restricted air spaces, high population density-areas, and weather conditions, with the added safety feature of not running if conditions are a certain way or if the drone has been stolen.

While Matternet is poised for medical transport in the U.S. given that it has conducted transport missions abroad, most of the testing in the U.S. has been for aerial photography as well as non-medical small package delivery, and surveillance.

In addition to Matternet, others are getting involved in the business of UAVs. One example is Alex Momont, a design engineer at the Technical University of Delft, who has worked on an ambulance drone that a layperson can use to bring an Automated External Defibrillator (AED) to a desired spot. Once the drone lands, an operator communicates through a two-way radio and video device to help individuals use the equipment.

Another innovator: physician Italo Subbarao, an Associate Dean at the William Carey University College of Osteopathic Medicine in Hattiesburg, MS, is building a drone with telemedicine capabilities to provide aid in disasters when emergency services cannot reach people.

Image Credit: Chaikom | Shutterstock.com

The Application of UAVs in the U.S.

The FDA has started to grant exemptions for drones, but currently medical transport is still yet to be approved. Once approved, drones could augment other transport providers such as helicopters, jets, and grounded vehicles.

The cost of drones is not prohibitive. The rotary-wing aircraft the public often sees costs around $10,000 and can carry a 5 lb. payload for up to 60 miles. Matternet’s device specifically designed with the use of medicine in mind is listed for $1,000 per month.

Once UAVs are able to be employed in the U.S. and other areas where approvals, exemptions, and special certifications are being sought, their benefits include, but are not limited to, the following:  

  • Telemedicine or medical support including diagnostics, drugs, or even tools, such as portable ultrasound to the military
  • Lab samples or blood, as well as unique products brought to small or remote clinics or hospitals
  • Medical supplies, including vaccines or anti-venom, to disaster relief or disease exposed regions
  • Prescriptions and other supplies to hard-to-reach people including those at sea or at home
  • Organs for transplantation
  • Defibrillators to patients in cardiac arrest

References and Further Reading


Use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles for Medical Product Transport


Drones In Medicine: What are the Possibilities?

Drone Delivery is Already Here - And it Works

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