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Medical Drones – Delivering the World of Tomorrow, Today!

by Jim Walker

As Yogi Berra famously noted, “The future ain’t what it used to be!” Earlier this year, Chinese drone manufacturer EHang unveiled an oversized drone powered by electric propellers, capable of carrying a single person through the air. According to the company, the EHang 184 drone can transport one person at approximately 100 kilometers (62 miles) per hour for about 23 minutes. It can hold about 100 kg (220 pounds).

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This was followed by an announcement of a far-ranging partnership with Lung Biotechnology PBC. The company, which specializes in lung transplant tech, is acquiring up to 1,000 of EHang’s autonomous drones for its Manufactured Organ Transport vehicle system (MOTH).

“We anticipate delivering hundreds of organs a day,” said Lung Biotechnology CEO Martine Rothblatt in a statement to Mashable, “which means that the MOTH system will help save not only tens of thousands of lives, but also many millions of gallons of aviation transport gasoline annually.”

Initially, these personal drone vehicles are estimated to cost in the $200,000 range, but if the EHang 184 follows industry trends, this price tag is likely to fall in the coming years, opening the possibility for low-cost medical drone delivery in remote locations all around the world.

Meanwhile, drone company Matternet is already focusing on using smaller medical drones for delivery of samples and medicine in both the developing world as well as in crowded urban mega-cities. “It’s much more cost-, energy- and time-efficient to send a blood sample via drone, rather than send it in a two-ton car down the highway with a person inside to bring it to a different lab for testing,” said Andreas Raptopoulos, founder and CEO of Matternet.

For emergency situations where access to critical medical supplies can often be restricted or completely impassable, these types of drone delivery vehicles will soon be playing a key role in remote rescue and recovery efforts. Matternet ONE prototypes have been flown in the most remote places on Earth like the Himalayas in Bhutan, and the dense rainforest of Papua New Guinea. According to the Matternet website, “Unlike a car or truck, Matternet ONE is able to travel the most direct route, avoiding traffic, impassable roads, rivers and challenging terrain. Matternet ONE enables you to leapfrog the obstacles that paralyze conventional transportation. We want to see our technology used everywhere and by everyone, revolutionizing logistics in city centers and access to goods in the most remote places on earth.”

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Even less remote health settings, such as the Mayo Clinic, are exploring how drones could augment their medical transportation needs. Cornelius A. Thiels, DO, a general surgery resident at Mayo Clinic’s campus in Rochester, Minnesota explains that “Mayo’s advanced transport team makes about 2,000 flights a year and in 2013 they transfused 200 units of packed red blood cells and 200 units of plasma to critically injured and ill patients during transport. How to best manage critically ill patients in the prehospital environment is a field we are actively researching. Unmanned aerial vehicles could potentially play a role in improving outcomes for these patients in the future.”

Conclusion
While countless Hollywood movies over the years have prepared us for battle drones, thankfully it appears as though medical drones are arriving first, bringing with them the promise of Anywhere Health! Although the demands of emergency situations will be the first application for these new drones, it won’t be long before more mundane deliveries of basic medicines and supplies start to become an everyday occurrence. Remember the initial novelty and excitement of finding and watching on-demand movies? It looks like on-demand medicine is not far behind!