How Will Drones Shape the Future of Healthcare?

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The threat of coronavirus has posed a number of issues in the healthcare system. But the biggest benefit was that it triggered a major expansion in health technology, such as telemedicine and at-home lab tests. But it also facilitated changes within the technical areas.

The demand for safer solutions naturally led to the development of robotic support in hospital environments, which is where drones come into play. Drones have been used in a number of environments such as warfare and were a very popular purchase due to their portability and decreases in cost. Drones have been used in delivery and transportation, monitoring public spaces, as well as aerial disinfection. But how have drones been used in the healthcare sector and what can we expect from them in the future? 

Delivering and Transporting Medical Supplies

Using drones to deliver supplies or vaccines existed way before the coronavirus pandemic. The first round of drone test flights conducted in 2018 by the WakeMed Health & Hospital in Raleigh, North Carolina, sent drones to carry simulated packages to go across a street. While the journey was only across the road, the fact is that drones in countries like Rwanda, drones can fly easier because of the less crowded and regulated air spaces, which is why the future of drones in a healthcare setting is so important on home soil. 

There have been numerous examples of delivering and transporting Medical Supplies. Companies like Zipline stayed active in Africa during the pandemic to facilitate the delivery of COVID vaccines, this is vital to bringing vaccines to remote locations that would be challenging to reach. This was also done in the US where PPE was delivered to a hospital based in North Carolina. But there are many other examples out there across the world. 

As the demand for reaching remote locations becomes ever more present and as the pandemic has highlighted the need to keep distance from people, drones can be an invaluable component to reaching people that are in rural areas and are unable to get to a doctor. But this is also pivotal to delivering those essential medical supplies in every aspect of the industry. It could be a potential replacement when there are issues with ambulance numbers. Ambulance waiting times have long been an issue in the United Kingdom. Drones can be an extra way to deliver help to those that need it when all hope appears lost. 

Aerial Disinfection

This is another area where drones could add a lot of value. Sanitization has been so crucial in the last two years that if we are to get back to our lives and enjoy clean surfaces, drones can be invaluable in many ways. Portable drones such as the DJI Air 2S can be a great addition to cleaning environments like hospitals. There has been research to show that there is a risk with public sprayings but there have been drone companies that are getting the go-ahead from the FAA to use drones to start disinfecting venues. For example, a drone company based in Pittsburgh, AERAS, has been disinfecting venues for some time. 

Additionally, the company Perpetual Motion used drones to spray disinfectants for large facilities inside and outside. The benefits of using drones for spraying can be particularly useful in environments where there is a lack of PPE. One of the constant issues throughout the pandemic was if the fleeting amount of PPE was going to last. When it comes to disinfecting, using a drone to go into a location where there has been a major outbreak of any airborne virus is almost akin to the bomb-defusing robots venturing into a difficult location. 

Aerial disinfection can be an amazing way to sanitize areas making them completely safe. But additionally, it can also show ways to disinfect on a large scale. Disinfection is typically something conducted by human cleaners. Therefore, having more cleaners means you are able to cover more space. But the speed of a drone can mean a more time-effective practice to benefit medical environments because of the quick turnaround, ensuring that patients can be treated quicker and more effectively. 

Telehealth Drones

Telehealth has risen in demand because of the pandemic. It’s been a major boon for medical businesses to reduce waiting times and to create a method of serving patients in a means that suits them more. Rather than venturing to a medical center, conversations through apps or a simple call have made a big difference in helping medical specialists determine what course of action should be taken for someone. However, drones and telehealth are now starting to blend together. 

At the University of Cincinnati, researchers invented a drone with cameras and a display screen to allow two-way communication. Drones have been used to carry vaccines and medication, and a telehealth drone has the potential to provide an amazing solution for patients in remote areas all around the world. When the pandemic began, telehealth care was essential because of limited access. And having telehealth drones within this context has meant an increase of support where it’s needed. There is a long way to go until we see this. However, a telehealth drone is proving to be one of the best approaches for older patients in rural locations. 

Warning and Monitoring

The fact is that healthcare monitoring is only just starting to gain prominence. The increase of devices has meant that we are all able to monitor our hearts easier, but in terms of making health monitoring easier, drones are only just being posed as a solution. Drones have been used in the pandemic in a number of ways, and the Vital Intelligence Project based in Australia used drones to monitor people to see if they had signs of coronavirus. 

The ability to monitor and detect people with certain conditions has meant that we could be seeing a socially distant near future where humans can be monitored and diagnosed with viruses. In a world where social distancing is very likely going to be the norm, when there is an outbreak, either of COVID or even during the high-flu season, we can learn from using drones to make a massive impact in the fields of diagnosing, treating, and delivering against these threats.

Why Aren’t We Using Drones More? 

If drones are the missing ingredient in helping us in healthcare, why aren’t we using them more? There are a wide variety of issues with drones and one of the biggest is, arguably, regulation. Regulations need to be eased under certain circumstances. Drones have the potential to cause a variety of disruptions to normal life. And while drones are an amazing resource in locations like Rwanda where regulation and air traffic are at a minimum, one of the biggest stumbling blocks to drones is in fact a lack of regulation. 

If we are to do this effectively, the best approach is to work with the powers that be and create very strict drone laws that can help in a medical environment. Regulation can be a very black-and-white approach. But there are also a number of legal considerations that need to be addressed. These would include responsibilities or authorizations of the pilots of the drone, as well as the ownership of the airspace. Throw into the mix any flight paths or areas above high levels of congestion and this can cause a few more issues. We also need to address the data of each drone, because if a drone can be hacked, does this cause a lot more frustration for the medical industry? There is also the social factor. If a drone is too loud and causes a disturbance, is this going to result in a myriad of legal complications for the medical company operating the drone? There are so many questions that need asking before drones can be a part of the medical world.

It certainly has been amazing to see the impacts of drones during the COVID crisis. In such a unique circumstance, drones have been used in a wide variety of scenarios that have overcome logistical threats while also being able to deliver that all-important healthcare. Because drone applications are diverse and will only continue to become more diverse, it might be time to bring drones into our lives sooner. However, because of the rise of drone-based solutions, we are only now at the very outset of using drones within healthcare. 

COVID has shown that we need to use them and they should become part of modern life. However, detractors may fear that as life slowly begins to return to what it once was, a lot of the lessons we learned at the feet of the pandemic are only going to disappear. Drones should be shaping the future of the healthcare industry rather than becoming a tool that helps in desperate times. As drones become more ubiquitous with every aspect of modern life, we’ve got to harness their power to deliver in areas that really do ensure that people are getting the help they need. From rural applications to delivering services, drones may need to overcome a number of regulations in order to be with us for the long haul but we may still have some time to go.

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