Many Americans think of drones as futuristic delivery devices for online shoppers that can drop packages from mid-air onto neighborhood doorsteps. But drones’ potential doesn’t stop there. Recent advances in the technology are proving that drones can deliver potentially life-saving support to communities in need.
Recently a team of researchers from Johns Hopkins University successfully transported blood samples across the Arizona desert sky via an unmanned aerial aircraft. They partnered with a company called Latitude, which builds unmanned aircrafts, to carry out the test flight and demonstrate the promise of drones for the delivery of medical care and supplies to those in rural communities or during emergency situations.
After a three-hour flight on one of Latitude’s HQ-40 drones, which had been custom-built with a temperature-controlled container, blood samples arrived at a hospital and laboratory tests confirmed that they were unaffected by the flight. The Hopkins team believes that the successful test is a sign that medical care could soon include the autonomous delivery of emergency vaccines, drugs, and diagnostic test kits, especially to rural communities.
But for this technology to one day benefit Americans, policymakers will need to develop drone regulations that provide innovators with certainty about how drones can be deployed.
Currently, though, federal regulations are in the way. Last year, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which maintains exclusive authority to regulate U.S. airspace, released new guidelines for the non-recreational use of drones. The guidelines prohibit flights after daylight, establish height and speed restrictions, and mandate that in-flight drones remain within the visual line of sight of their remote pilots. The FAA has also indicated that certain legal issues will have to be left under the purview of state and local governments, creating a patchwork of confusing laws for drone developers, manufacturers, and operators to follow.
In other countries, however, drones are set to transform the way urgent care and supplies are delivered to remote communities whose residents do not have easy access to a hospital. This month, Switzerland will implement an autonomous medical delivery network, which will feature launching and landing pads across the country. The Swiss government authorized Matternet—a drone company based in Menlo Park, California—to operate the network.
In Rwanda, where the government partnered with Zipline, another Silicon Valley-based company, drones are already providing new possibilities for health care facilities, which are now better equipped to deliver life-saving services to their patients. It used to take three or four hours for some doctors in the country to procure blood for transfusions during surgery and childbirths. Now, with delivery drones in operation, plastic sachets of blood arrive in 15 minutes.
These are the kinds of innovative medical solutions that we can and should look forward to in the U.S.; after all, so much of this technology is being developed right here at home. But unless policymakers begin rethinking regulations that can encourage more research and investment in transformative drone technology, their benefits will remain largely grounded for patients and communities who need them.