Puerto Rico piloting drones to deliver emergency medical supplies

Collaboration between AT&T, Merck and others combines IoT monitoring, temperature-controlled packaging and the drone to get meds to remote villages.
By Healthcare IT News Australia
12:54 PM
merck drone flying in the air

Drones are among the most cutting-edge innovations that healthcare organizations of various types are currently evaluating, running proofs-of-concept with or pilot testing around the globe.

In the most recent move, drones have been successfully tested for delivering emergency medical supplies to remote areas of Puerto Rico still feeling the effects of last year’s devastating Hurricane Maria.

The proof-of-concept trial deployed temperature-controlled cargo containers for transporting vaccines, as well as non-refrigerated cargo such as asthma and hypertension medicines.

Trials involved drones flying over both land and sea, beyond line of sight, in challenging terrain, delivering medicines to remote mountain villages that were cut off from electricity and road access for months after Hurricane Maria, some of them for a time accessible only by helicopter.

Drones have also been tested for healthcare purposes in other parts of the world.

Just this week, in fact, Purdue University researchers said they are working with the U.S. Military on a drone and headset augmented reality combination that enables experienced physicians to remotely instruct junior doctors working in the field.  Also this summer, the U.K. National Health Service has been flying drones carrying blood and medical results between London hospitals. Researchers evaluating the pilot project estimated that it could save up to $21 billion annually when used in the overall economy, meaning not just healthcare.  

And in June of 2017, drones beat emergency responders to heart attack victims by as much as 17 minutes in a small test conducted in Sweden.

Andrew Schroeder, director of research and analysis at humanitarian aid organization Direct Relief, which is part of the collaboration using drones in Puerto Rico, said they need to get medicine to remote locations that are otherwise reachable only by helicopter.

“As drone technology and systems for managing them improve, we expect them to save lives in places where disasters have cut off access to critically needed healthcare,” Schroeder said.

Although the Hurricane Maria death toll is estimated by the Puerto Rican Government at almost 3000, the vast majority of these deaths were not caused directly by the storm, but by subsequent disruptions to vital infrastructure and services, such as access to healthcare and treatment for chronic diseases.

Schroeder said the hurricane had spurred innovation in disaster relief and healthcare resiliency.

The trials, for instance, are a collaboration between Direct Relief, Merck (which is funding the project and providing the medicines for delivery), Softbox (which has provided small temperature controlled packaging systems for transporting cold chain medications) AT&T (whose IoT technology is monitoring the temperature and location of the cargo) and Volans-i (which is providing and operating the drones).

Softbox technical director Richard Wood said Skypod, the IoT-enabled, temperature-controlled packaging was designed specifically for drone applications in extreme conditions.

“Skypod can be tracked in near real-time, providing real-time data for temperature, GPS location and security, ensuring the protection of the medicines through the most challenging of final-mile scenarios,” Wood said.

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