Not just pizzas or groceries, drones can one day transport blood for transfusion to hospitals in rural areas — while keeping it safe and intact — in less time.
In what is believed to be the first proof-of-concept study of its kind, researchers from Johns Hopkins University have determined that large bags of blood products, such as those transfused into patients every day, can maintain temperature and cellular integrity while transported by drones.
Remotely-piloted drones are an effective, safe and timely way to quickly get blood products to remote accident or natural catastrophe sites, or other time-sensitive destinations.
“For rural areas that lack access to nearby clinics, or that may lack the infrastructure for collecting blood products or transporting them on their own, drones can provide that access,” says Timothy Amukele, assistant professor of pathology and the paper’s first author.
The new study examined the effects of drone transportation on larger amounts of blood products used for transfusion, which have significantly more complex handling, transport and storage requirements compared to blood samples for laboratory testing.
The team purchased six units of red blood cells, six units of platelets and six units of unthawed plasma from the American Red Cross, and then packed the units into a 5-quart cooler two to three units at a time.
The cooler was then attached to a commercial S900-model drone.
This particular drone model comes equipped with a camera mount, which the team removed and replaced with the cooler.
For each test, the drone was flown by remote control a distance of approximately 13 to 20 km while 328 feet above ground. This flight took up to 26.5 minutes.
The team designed the test to maintain temperature for the red blood cells, platelets and plasma units. They used wet ice, pre-calibrated thermal packs and dry ice for each type of blood product, respectively.
Following flight, all samples were transported to The Johns Hopkins Hospital where the team used the institution’s laboratories to check for any damage.
The team plans larger studies in the US and overseas and hopes to test methods of active cooling, such as programming a cooler to maintain a specific temperature.
The findings are forthcoming in the journal Transfusion.