WASHINGTON: Drones may be used to transport blood to diagnostic laboratories from rural areas, suggests a new study which found that results of common and routine blood tests are not affected by up to 40 minutes of travel via unmanned aerial vehicles.
Researchers said the study is promising news for the millions of people cared for in rural and economically impoverished areas that lack passable roads in developing nations, because drones can give health care workers quick access to lab tests needed for diagnoses and treatments.
Most tests on blood samples and other fluids are done by dedicated laboratories that can be scores of miles from remote clinics.
“Biological samples can be very sensitive and fragile,” said Timothy Amukele, a pathologist at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and director of a laboratory collaboration between Johns Hopkins and Uganda’s Makerere University.
That sensitivity makes even the pneumatic tube systems used by many hospitals, for example, unsuitable for transporting blood for certain purposes.
Of particular concern related to the use of drones, Amukele noted, is the sudden acceleration that marks the launch of the vehicle and the jostling when the drone lands.
“Such movements could have destroyed blood cells or prompted blood to coagulate, and I thought all kinds of blood tests might be affected, but our study shows they weren’t, so that was cool,” he said.
For the study – which Amukele believes is the first rigorous examination of the impact of drone transport on biological samples – his team collected a total of six blood samples each from 56 healthy adult volunteers at The Johns Hopkins Hospital.
The samples were then driven to a flight site an hour’s drive from the hospital. There, half of the samples were packaged for flight, with a view to protecting them for the in-flight environment and preventing leakage.
Those samples were then loaded into a hand-launched fixed-wing drone and flown around for periods of six to 38 minutes.
Owing to Federal Aviation Administration rules, the flights were conducted in an unpopulated area, stayed below 100 metres and were in line of sight of the certified pilot.
The other samples were driven back from the drone flight field to The Johns Hopkins Hospital’s Core Laboratory, where they underwent 33 most common laboratory tests that together account for around 80 per cent of all such tests done.
A few of the tests performed were for sodium, glucose and red blood cell count. Comparing lab results of the flown versus nonflown blood of each volunteer, Amukele said “the flight really had no impact.
” Amukele noted that one blood test – for total carbon dioxide (the so-called bicarbonate test) – did yield differing results for some of the flown versus nonflown samples.
Amukele said the team is not sure why, but that the reason could be because the blood sat around for up to eight hours before being tested.