Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), also called drones, are not science fiction anymore. UAVs are extensively used in countless fields. Currently, it’s the retailers that are exploring the applications of UAVs. They hope to use the technology to deliver packages at record speed. However, there is another field which could immensely benefit from UAVs – medicine.
In a nutshell, drones are small aircrafts that can be remotely controlled or preprogramed to fly specific routes. They are often powered by Lithium batteries and are fitted with sensors that use GPS to find their path. Drones can be configured to carry a small payload along with cameras and communication devices. They have a range of up to 60 miles.
Drones have been used before in Haiti to deliver aid packages after the earthquake in 2010. Since drones fly, traffic is minimal and hence they reach their destination faster. For example, the average road speed in Bhutan is about 10 miles an hour. If drones are used, supplies and medication can reach their destinations much faster.
Currently, engineers are working on ambulance drones. An ambulance drone carries advanced life support devices that even a common man can use, including an Automated External Defibrillator. Once the drone lands near the patient in need of care, the operator of the drone can communicate through a two way radio or video device and talk individuals through the use of AED and other equipment.
Another great option for such drones in transporting blood products. Hospitals with surplus blood can immediately supply it to any place with requirement.
As seen in Haiti, drones can be of great use in case of disaster situations. They can transport essential supply to disaster sites keeping individuals alive and healthy for long periods of time. This could be of immense help when roads to the site are damaged or airports shut down, not to mention places that are geographically difficult to reach.
People residing in remote areas need to wait very long for medical care. Hikers, hunters, sailors, etc. may need to wait several days before they receive assistance. Drones could easily fly to these areas and deliver necessary first aid.
Medical drones have yet to be tested in the USA. The current regulations require the drone operator to hold a commercial pilot’s license, fly the aircraft only during the daytime and maintain visual contact with drones at all times. Also, operators are not allowed to fly drones above 400 feet.
Thankfully, FAA are planning to slowly integrate drones into the National Airspace System in 2015. Suggestions have been made to include an independent certification process that would allow for a drone operator license and a dedicated air zone for drones of up to 700 feet.
As with every new concept, there are certain inherent risks that need to be figured out. For example, what should be done if the blood being transported is somehow lost or damaged in transit? What if the drone itself is somehow damaged and unable to reach its destination? And the main question, what if the drone reaches the wrong place or gets intercepted.
Another question that arises is the crowded airspace. Given the numerous applications of the drone, chances are, there could be hundreds of other drones operating in the same airspace. Each and every one of them trying to deliver something important. This may result in mid-air collision or slower transport time.
Though the advantages of drones far outweigh the risks. As soon as the FFA loosen their regulations and show drones the green flag, we could be one step closer to providing urgent medical care.