Text: Julie Zaugg
Photo: JP5\ZOB/ / newscom

Medicine falling right out of the sky

Doctors, scientists and humanitarian workers are all looking into the potential of drones to help patients and victims of natural disasters. But the technical, legislative and privacy hurdles remain.


The “Ambulance-Drone” designed by the Dutch researcher Alec Momont brings first-aid essentials to cardiac arrest victims.

Drones look like big metal insects surrounded by a spherical cage. The cage acts as a protective shell during take-off, meaning that the drone can hit objects without being damaged. “We have spent hundreds of hours watching insects to understand how they remain stable after crashing into something,” says Patrick Thévoz. The entrepreneur co-founded Flyability, a Lausanne-based company and offshoot of the National Centre of Competence in Research in Robotics at EPFL, which was recently ranked by Venturelab as one of the top three Swiss start-ups. “And the result is an incredibly flexible and agile drone that can make its way through the most hostile and treacherous environments.”

That makes drones the ideal partner for rescue teams that have to find victims stuck under a collapsed building after an earthquake, trapped in a burning building or caught in a storm at high altitude. “The robots on wheels that are currently used often get stuck in debris on the ground,” Patrick Thévoz says. “We saw that in Fukushima, where they did not manage to enter the damaged power plant.”

Matternet, a Californian start-up, has developed drones to bring food, water and drugs to victims of natural disasters. The company tested its machines in Haiti following the earthquake in 2010 and in Bhutan, a country chosen for the poor condition of its roads, making it the ideal place for experimenting with drones.

Terre des Hommes also used drones in Haiti in the aftermath of hurricane Sandy in 2012. “Some houses were swept 15 kilometres away by a river,” says Frédéric Moine, information systems advisor at the NGO. “A drone equipped with a camera helped us to assess the damage.” The drone’s images were compared with those taken before the disaster by OpenStreetMap – a participatory community mapping initiative aimed at creating a free-access world map – to guide reconstruction efforts.

Medair, a humanitarian organisation, used drones in its relief efforts following typhoon Haiyan which devastated the Philippines in 2013. Other NGOs apply drones to monitoring refugee flows or determining if anti-personnel mines have moved after a landslide.

Flying ambulance

Humanitarian aid is not the only potential application for drones. Alec Momont, a researcher from the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, has designed a drone to be used as a flying ambulance. The drone can bring a defibrillator, a tourniquet and other first-aid essentials (venom kit, epinephrine auto-injector, splint, asthma inhaler) to patients within a radius of 12 km2 in under one minute, compared with an average response time of ten minutes for a traditional ambulance.

Guided by GPS to the signal from the mobile phone used
to make the emergency call, the drone can find its way to
the site of the accident. Once there, a medical practitioner
can diagnose the emergency remotely and instruct helpers
on site via the camera mounted on the device. “That increases a patient’s chances of surviving a cardiac arrest from 8% to 80%,” says Alex Momont.

Cornelius Thiels, a doctor and researcher at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota in the United States, has other ideas. He feels that many hospitals, especially smaller ones, do not stock enough blood products, including red cells, plasma and platelets. “A single patient with massive bleeding can easily deplete the blood supply.” They end up having to transfer the person to another hospital or have blood delivered by road or air.

Cost aside, this can be risky for the medical staff. Every year, 40 health care providers die during these emergency transfers. The vehicle can get stuck in traffic, putting the patient’s life in danger. The doctor believes that “using drones could help save time and lives.”

These unmanned flying machines could also be used to transport laboratory samples or drugs to patients in remote areas. “Narcotic painkillers could be shipped with a daily dose, rather than giving patients a monthly supply, thus minimising the risk of addiction,” Cornelius Thiels says. And eventually, drones might even transport organs. “Supply and demand could be coordinated more flexibly and reduce waiting times for patients who need
a transplant.”

Drones for research

Medical research has also joined the drone movement. Project Premonition, an American initiative aimed at detecting new viruses by decoding their genome, uses them to capture mosquitoes and analyse the blood from the animals and humans they’ve bitten. “I’ve been hunting mosquitoes for twenty years. Until now, that meant laying traps out in nature on foot or by truck,” says Douglas Norris, a microbiologist from John Hopkins University, which is involved in the project. A team of scientists can lay 8 to 12 traps per day at most.”

Project Premonition now wants to outsource that task to drones. “They can fly in a straight line, without having to fly around obstacles, and can work day and night,” the scientist says. Douglas Norris believes that just one of these devices can replace an entire team of
trappers. And they can zip through dense jungle-covered areas that humans can’t reach. In March, researchers conducted a feasibility study on the Caribbean island of Grenada.

Despite their potential, drones still have progress to make.
The average vehicle can carry no more than 2 to 3kg and only fly for up to one hour. That restricts its range of action to 90 km2 at most. “If we use them to transport drugs or lab samples, we have to make sure they’re not exposed to heat or moisture during flight,” says Cornelius Thiels.

Many countries have laws restricting the use of their air space by drones. For example, the United States bans civil or recreational unmanned aircraft operations above certain altitudes, while conflict zones only allow military planes to fly. “Every country has its own rules,” says Patrick Thévoz of Flyability. “In Switzerland, drones cannot fly within five kilometres of an airport, above certain altitudes or above a crowd.” In France, flight plans must be submitted to the authorities for approval. “But a European law is being drafted to standardise all that,” he says.

The use of these flying machines also raises privacy issues. If they’re deployed to monitor refugees with a ground resolution of 4 centimetres, the people’s faces become completely recognisable. Or, if drugs sent to a patient’s home are intercepted by a neighbour, that person would then have confidential health information. In essence, drones still face several hurdles before they can take off. ⁄