Coronavirus, organ transport top medical drone uses

February 19, 2020  - By

With Coronavirus all over the news, it’s actually encouraging to hear that China is making high-level efforts to contain the infection: two isolation hospitals built in just one week in Wuhan where the outbreak began, travel restrictions inside China, very few people being allowed to leave the country, enforced mask-wearing, and local communities in neighboring provinces blocking visits by outsiders.

Two drone-related stories caught my attention, both in China and connected to the virus outbreak — one where drones were being used to enforce “wear-a-mask (see video), and another where disinfectant was being dispensed by drones.

Photo: Xag

Photo: Xag

It’s not exactly clear who was behind recent drone flights that broadcast live warnings to people without protective masks on the streets — some villages in rural China were apparently overflown and people were advised to wear a mask while outdoors.

Around Beijing, similar activities were maybe down to well-intentioned social media people and traffic police.

XAG, which has fielded 42,000 agricultural spraying drones in China, is urging authorities to use its drones for widespread disinfectant spraying, and has set up a significant fund to support these activities. The company claims its drones can disinfect a local community in less than four hours, and may already have done so.

Medical transport drones. Staying with the medical theme, Aquiline Drones (AD) in Cincinnati is a drone company operating under a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Part 135 Air Carrier Certificate, and is working on a system to transport human organs for transplants.

VyrtX is an organ transport company in Ohio that has teamed with AD, with the object of creating a highway-in-the-sky across the state to overcome ground delivery delays. Apparently around 25% of precious transplant organs don’t make it in time to be used; they are lost to the patients on lengthy wait lists — and many people are dying as a consequence. There are supposedly enough donors, but organs deteriorate during ground transport and desperate transplant candidates are losing out badly.

So the next step for VyrtX and AD are custom-designed drones for life-saving rapid transport between donor and transplant hospitals. VyrtX is working with the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory in Dayton, the Ohio UAS Centers and four Ohio organ procurement organizations to develop the air corridor and begin rapid organ transport by drone across the state.

The University of California, San Diego, Health (UC San Diego Health) is joining an increasing number of health organizations in developing a drone system for blood and documentation transport between its facilities. Collaborating with the UPS Flight Forward drone delivery program and with Matternet, medical payloads will travel between Moores Cancer Center and Jacobs Medical Center. The Center for Advanced Laboratory Medicine, about 1.5 miles north, will be added provided initial test flights work out well.

Trained professionals will load and operate the drones, which will follow predetermined, low-risk flight paths and will carry no cameras. (Photo: UC San Diego Health)

Trained professionals will load and operate the drones, which will follow predetermined, low-risk flight paths and will carry no cameras. (Photo: UC San Diego Health)

UPS Flight Forward is another company that was granted (FAA) Part 135 Air Carrier authorization and is already operating a UAS delivery program at WakeMed Hospital in Raleigh, N.C.. UPS Flight Forward is also planning with CVS to deliver prescriptions and other products to CVS pharmacy customers.

Another drone medical supplies delivery system in Tanzania ran an operational trial in the fall of 2018. Wingcopter (a German drone manufacturer), Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH and DHL flew medicines from the mainland to an island. The DHL Parcelcopter completed a 60-km route autonomously in around 40 minutes, for a total of 2,200 km flown during the pilot project.

Building on these earlier trials, Wingcopter is now working with Merck and the Frankfurt University of Applied Science to demonstrate a drone delivery system between two Merck facilities in Germany. The object is to show the benefits of direct drone airborne transport over trucks for moving small packages between a Merck lab in Gernsheim to its headquarters in Darmstadt.

The first flight was recently accomplished over roughly 15.5 miles between the facilities, carrying a sample of pigments.

Photo: Wingcopter

Photo: Wingcopter

The BVLOS (beyond visual line of sight) flight passed over a dense metropolitan area, power lines, railways, and roadways. Benefits include time savings of around an hour, provided much greater savings at some times, and avoided significant ground vehicle emissions.

To sum up, drones being used to help combat coronavirus, to reduce time and costs for the transport of medical samples and supplies over medium distances, and there’s a spin-off with potential commercial promise, too. It’s a good month for the drone industry…

Tony Murfin
GNSS Aerospace

About the Author: Tony Murfin

Tony Murfin is managing consultant for GNSS Aerospace LLC, Florida. Murfin provides business development consulting services to companies involved in GNSS products and markets, and writes for GPS World as the OEM Professional contributing editor. Previously, Murfin worked for NovAtel Inc. in Calgary, Canada, as vice president of Business Development; for CMC Electronics in Montreal, Canada, as business development manager, product manager, software manger and software engineer; for CAE in Montreal as simulation software engineer; and for BAe in Warton, UK, as senior avionics engineer. Murfin has a B.Sc. from the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology in the UK, and is a UK Chartered Engineer (CEng MIET).