SUNY Hospital Uses Drones to Move COVID Test Kits

Overseas, drone technology firms in Scotland and Ghana transport lab specimens up to 40 miles

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CEO SUMMARY: One healthcare trend accelerated by the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic is the use of drones to move COVID-19 test kits, specimens, and medical supplies. Earlier this year, the SUNY Upstate Medical University Hospital in Syracuse tested the reliability of drones to move unused COVID-19 test kits between locations on its campus. In Scotland and Ghana, drones are in regular use to move supplies, kits, and specimens between suppliers, hospitals, and other providers. 

USE OF AERIAL DRONES TO MOVE COVID-19 TEST KITS, SPECIMENS AND MEDICAL SUPPLIES is happening here in the U.S. as well as in other countries, including Scotland and Ghana.

In the U.S., the State University of New York (SUNY) Upstate Medical University in Syracuse tested medical deliveries with drones during a year-long project that commenced in January. As part of this project, the SUNY Upstate Medical University team completed drone deliveries of unused COVID-19 test kits from one rooftop to another on SUNY’s campus, according to a Syracuse.com article. 

The proof-of-concept trip from the campus’ hospital to its clinical laboratory showed how drones could slash the time required to move test kits. Delivery by drone was completed in two minutes instead of the usual seven minutes via ground transportation. 

The motive behind this demonstration project was to identify the viability of using drones to get specimens to the lab—especially when the specimens are human organs, blood products, and tissue removed from patients during surgery.

Long-term, this New York hospital aims to use drones to help avoid hurdles in transporting supplies and specimens during a highway construction project that is expected to severely impede traffic between the main campus (where the hospital is situated) and the surgery center.

“[The surgeons] are not going to want to wait 20 minutes for a tissue sample to get to the lab because the highway is coming down,” said Tony Basile, COO, NUAIR (Northeast UAS Airspace Integration Research) Alliance, a nonprofit organization that focuses on the testing of unmanned aircraft systems, in the Syracuse.com article. 

SUNY Upstate Medical University partnered with NUAIR and DroneUp, a Chesapeake, Va.-based drone technology solutions company, to make medical deliveries with drones. The project also entailed other drone deliveries, including the transport of supplies from the hospital to a laboratory and to a surgery center. 

“This has been a dream of mine since the day I came to Upstate as a pathologist, when I looked at the ability of Upstate to use drones to send medical materials, perhaps specimens, to our labs all over town,” said Robert Corona, DO, CEO of Upstate Medical University Hospital, in a blog post announcing the successful flight of unused COVID-19 test kits.

But can drone dreams become daily drone deliveries? U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations prohibit medical material transport by drone due to potential “risk to the public in the event of a crash,” Basile said.

NY Hospital Got FAA Waiver

However, the FAA-approved DroneUp 107.39 waiver makes it possible for the company to fly drones over people and moving vehicles, said Melanie Harris, DroneUp Sales Director, in a blog post. 

“There has been a lot of hype around drone delivery companies. There are regulation hurdles, equipment challenges, and standard operating procedures,” she added. 

A December 2020 FAA Final Rule requires remote identification of drones, and allows operators to fly over people and at night in certain conditions, a news release explained.

As to medical deliveries, the FAA is still debating the type of drone that can be used, according to reporting by DroneDJ, which speculated that drones with six to eight motors will likely get the go-ahead since they can fly even if two motors fail. 

SUNY Upstate Medical University is not the only provider to conduct medical delivery projects with drones. The Dark Report’s intelligence briefing in 2019 on WakeMed Health and Hospital’s use of drones—in partnership with UPS and Matternet of Menlo Park, Calif.,—addressed transport of specimens from a hospital physician’s office and a draw station to a lab at the provider’s Raleigh, N.C. campus. 

The trip was the first FAA-sanctioned use of a drone for routine revenue flights in the U.S. (See TDR, “WakeMed Uses Drone to Deliver Patient Specimens,” April 8, 2019.)

Meanwhile overseas, drones are carrying COVID-19 test samples, test kits, and personal protective equipment to Scotland’s west coast Argyll and Bute region. The 40-mile route includes deliveries to three hospitals and a medical practice. The route is operated by Skyports, a London-based drone firm that has approval from the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to carry diagnostic specimens by drone, according to the Daily Mail.

“Using drone deliveries within supply chains can create significant time and cost savings. This initiative is a natural progression from our recent trials with the NHS in Scotland as we scale our operations, supporting a wider network of hospitals and medical practices as they continue to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Duncan Walker, Skyports’ CEO, in the Daily Mail.

During the proof-of-concept last year, drones operated by Skyports delivered test kits between two hospital locations in rural Scotland. A usual 45-minute trip by ferry was cut to 15 minutes by drone, the Daily Mail reported. 

Use of Drones in Ghana 

And in Ghana, COVID-19 test samples travel about 45 miles in drones provided by Zipline, a San Francisco-based company, in partnership with the country’s Ministry of Health to move samples from rural areas to lab testing centers in urban environments. The World describes the loading and transport process as follows:

  • Test samples are packed in red World Health Organization boxes and put inside the drone.
  • The automated drone flies to a destination (monitored by a human as needed).
  • Upon arrival, the drone automatically drops the red box of COVID-19 samples by a parachute.

Zipline also has started SARS-CoV-2 vaccine distribution via drones throughout Ghana as well. The company’s plan is to deliver 2.5 million doses by air. 

“Not only does this make Ghana the world’s first country to deploy drones on a national scale for the delivery of COVID-19 vaccines, but it is also a giant effort in ensuring equitable access and enabling Ghana to fully utilize its healthcare infrastructure to deliver vaccines,” Zipline CEO Keller Rinaudo told Business Insider.

SUNY Upstate University Hospital in Syracuse Explores How Drones May Cut Delivery Times

The-SUNY-Upstate-drone

PICTURED ABOVE IS A CLOSE-UP OF THE DRONE MODEL used by the team at 420-bed SUNY Upstate Medical University Hospital earlier this year to demonstrate the viability of moving unused COVID-19 test kits between the hospital and a nearby building on the medical campus. The drone project was done in conjunction with NUAIR and DroneUp. 

Use of Drones to Deliver COVID-19 Test Kits

DRONE DELIVERY OF COVID-19 TEST KITS could help contain the pandemic, according to a recent article by Austrian researchers in the journal, Transport Policy. 

The authors, who are affiliated with the University of Klagenfurt, suggested drones as a feasible alternative for contactless test distribution and noted they could, most likely, be deployed with existing drone industry capacity.

“We propose the use of drones to support and enable testing of potentially infected patients in a decentralized manner. Not only are drones independent in regard to potential on-the-ground infrastructural issues, but, more importantly, they enable a contactless alternative for testing people,” the researchers wrote.

“With the use of drones, COVID-19 self-test kits and other essential goods can be transported without the need for direct human contact, thus reducing infection risks among involved people. 

“The novel approach that we develop in this study does, however, not aim at creating new drone fleet capacities, but rather relies on utilizing existing drone infrastructure,” the authors added.

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