How Drones Can Help Rural Clinics - Pacific Standard

How Drones Can Help Rural Clinics

A new study finds that drones can indeed be trusted to deliver blood samples.
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Pathologist Timothy Amukele and engineer Robert Chalmers test how blood samples fare when flown in a drone. (Photo: Johns Hopkins Medicine)

Pathologist Timothy Amukele and engineer Robert Chalmers test how blood samples fare when flown in a drone. (Photo: Johns Hopkins Medicine)

Why is this doctor pictured to the right looking so delighted? Perhaps it's because of a successful study he recently conducted, which could have big implications in the medical world. In a paper published this week, pathologist Timothy Amukele and his team reported that they flew blood samples in a drone for up to 38 minutes, and, afterward, the blood was still fresh enough for a variety of clinical tests.

Their study is the first step toward a unique solution for clinics that are located in rural or remote regions with no blood-analyzing laboratory nearby. Perhaps, in the future, drones could carry blood samples from remote doctors' offices to specialized labs for testing. "UAS [unmanned aerial systems; i.e., drones] have unique advantages such as no traffic delays, low overhead costs, and the ability to go where there is no passable road," Amukele and his colleagues write in the journal PLoS One. Amukele hopes eventually to develop a system that would carry blood samples within Kenya's Nzoia district, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. (Amukele is a researcher and assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University.) The Nzoia district has only one lab capable of testing blood for diabetes, tuberculosis, HIV, and other conditions, and some clinics—where doctors draw blood for diagnoses—may be up to 30 miles away from the lab.

By a number of statistical measures, the results were close enough that it didn't seem a drone flight affected the blood's ability to be tested.

Before trusting drones to deliver blood samples, however, the research team wanted to make sure a jostling, unmanned flight wouldn't make the blood clot, damage cells in the blood, or otherwise alter the blood in a way that would threaten the accuracy of blood tests. The researchers gathered more than 300 samples from 56 healthy study volunteers and drove all of the samples to a grassy, tree-edged field. There, they loaded half of the samples—21 at a time—into the fuselage of the fixed-wing drone pictured above. A trained pilot flew the drone around for anywhere from six minutes to 38 minutes. After this treatment, researchers ran the blood samples through 33 common tests that doctor's offices order, such as glucose measurements and white and red blood cell counts.

To check whether drone flights rendered blood-test results inaccurate, the researchers compared their drone-flown results with the results from tests performed on blood samples that they'd taken from the same people, but that hadn't been flown in the drone. By a number of statistical measures, the results were close enough that it didn't seem a drone flight affected the blood's ability to be tested. "The flight really had no impact," Amukele said in a statement.

There's lots left for researchers to test before they can be certain they can ship blood samples by drone. They'll have to try flying and testing blood from people with different health conditions, instead of only using samples from healthy people. They might also try actually shipping blood by drone from a remote clinic, dozens of miles away from the nearest lab. If the tests go well, doctors' offices may join Amazon as drone-shippers in the future.

Quick Studies is an award-winning series that sheds light on new research and discoveries that change the way we look at the world.

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