***Text by McGill VFS Student Chapter***
Back on March 8th, the VFS McGill chapter along with the McGill Biomedical Engineering Club organized a virtual panel marrying two topics that do not get put together very often: drones and medicine. Specifically, how could the ever-growing capabilities of drone technology be used in the medical field? Our panelists each brought their own angle to this question, providing insights on how to expand the use of drones in the medical field for medical professionals.
Dr. Valerie Homier (bottom left) is a specialist in emergency medicine at the McGill University Health Center (MUHC) and a board member for the Center of Excellence in Emergency Preparedness (CEEP). She frequently serves as advisor and emergency preparedness expert on different projects at regional and provincial levels. She was appointed Medical Co-director of Emergency Preparedness at the MUHC in 2017.
Philip Reece (bottom right) is an engineer and the CEO of InDro Robotics. His company is at the forefront of delivering and operating drones in Canada to collect data and to extend the use of UAVs to atypical applications. It is currently the only company allowed by transport Canada to carry cargo on drones.
Martin Leprohon (bottom middle) is an airport planner consultant at Airbiz, an international aviation consulting company. He oversees short, medium, and long-term project planning for airport facilities’ operations.
Drones in the medical context have primarily been imagined as delivery vehicles capable of moving organs for fast transplants, blood to locations in urgent needs, and medical equipment for on-site staff. As drone technology evolves, the medical field will surely benefit from its advancements.
Main Advantages of Medical Drones
Drones have a considerable advantage over traditional medical delivery services in distributing AEDs (Automated External Defibrillators) or delivering blood to hospitals. Typical road traffic wastes precious time, which is especially relevant for cardiac arrests, where every minute without medical intervention decreases the chance of survival.
Even more contemporary needs have been addressed by drones, such as of the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines to communities in Ghana. These communities made the hard decision to physically isolate and close roads to prevent the spread of the disease, making the drone distribution of vaccines a necessity. More locally, in British Columbia, Mr. Reece has been delivering medicine to the islands off the coast of Vancouver. Transitioning this medical delivery to drone delivery cuts travel time from 4 hours via the ferry to a short 7-minute flight.
Drones have also proven to be useful in the case of what is called short route redundancy, where the drone flies in-between two points regularly with a predetermined flight path. Philip and Valerie explained this could be applied in the case of Montreal and Héma-Québec, the local supplier of blood. Tests flights in this context were evaluated for the capabilities of carrying the blood safely by monitoring its temperature while in transport. This use would allow blood to travel from Héma-Québec to Montreal hospitals in case of an emergency where regular means of transportation are not critically impaired, like during a winter snowstorm.
Another proposed medical context would see drones alleviate the risks for first responders to a disaster scene. Overhead flights could scan an area and gather data to evaluate the dangers and opportunities for intervention.
Challenges with Drone Research
The panelists each focused on challenges in their industries. The medical and aerospace sectors are traditionally very risk averse. Thus, any challenges to the status quo takes a lot of effort and time through proofs of concept. There are a lot of processes to reduce risks that are considered. For example, during InDro Robotics’ flight tests, only the aggregated pilot could approach the drone until the batteries were disconnected. This is a problem if we want a more general use of the drone technology like delivering AEDs to bystanders.
On top of the procedural challenges, there is currently a lack of infrastructure for the seamless professional use of drones. Their primary advantage is that they are quickly operable, yet due to understandable risks posed by the commercial/consumer industry, legislation is growing concern. It is required to book flights in advance and wait for Transport Canada’s approval. The need for dedicated airspace will be crucial for hospital-to-hospital drone exchange and with Héma-Québec. Facilitating these “unplanned uses” for the healthcare system is the central objective of this research and would make medical drones a very great tool for the medical sector.
These debates on challenges naturally bring up the question of safety with drones. We were aware that fly-away’s, where the drone loses connection with the pilot and keeps its last inputted flight command, have been happening less and less as the technology has evolved. Indeed, a lot of redundancy is built into them to make their flight as safe as possible. They can often communicate through different means like cellular/radio/satellite to reduce such risk. There is also a need for clear predetermined paths for the drone to fly along as in the Héma-Québec example. Yet, drone flights near airports and hospital’s helipads need to be proven reliable so that they do not disrupt their traffic.
To summarize some of the key takeaways from this interesting panel session, drones offer a wide range of opportunities to advance medicine and healthcare in various contexts. Beyond the engineering challenges of pilotless flight, the now low cost of these devices has necessitated new conversations around privacy, interoperability, and equity. The next few years will be an interesting time in realizing these possibilities while converging on safer, more ethical uses for drones.