Drones may not be used to deliver packages—or even pizzas—in the U.S. anytime soon but they are being used in global medical logistics. Indeed, the technology now plays a significant role in delivering medicine to people in places where the terrain is rugged.


Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, are being field-tested for medical uses in numerous locations in the U.S. and abroad. For example, drones successfully delivered small aid packages after the Haitian earthquake in 2012, and in Papua New Guinea, Doctors Without Borders used them to transport dummy TB test samples from a remote village to the large coastal city of Kerema, according to a Mayo Clinic report.


Unlike big, multimillion-dollar military drones, the small, rotary-wing aircraft used commercially can carry a 5-pound payload for 30 to 60 minutes of flight time, with a range of about 20 to 60 miles, the report explains. They can be manually operated or preprogrammed to fly specific routes, need almost no room to land, and can even drop packages from a low hover, making them ideal for medical applications in remote or rugged locations, or those which are both.


A UPS story that ran on Wall Street Journal reports that last summer, a drone carrying 10 pounds of prescription medications and other medical supplies successfully flew a 35-mile round trip to a rural health clinic in western Virginia. If the journey was made by car or truck, it would normally take 90 minutes each way due to the bumpy backroads. The drone, designed by UAV developer Flirtey, made the trip by air in nine minutes, UPS reports. Coordinated with support from NASA, the flight marked the first FAA-approved drone delivery in the U.S.


“Drone technology has the potential to expedite the movement of critical medical supplies across difficult-to-access geographies while at the same time providing pictures of the situation on the ground beneath the drone’s flight path,” says Mark Wallace, senior vice president of global engineering at UPS. “This improved situational awareness allows for proper resource allocation and mission prioritization, which are critical in times of disaster.”


I was also interested to read that the country of Rwanda is partnering with drone startup Zipline to deliver medical supplies to five of the country’s hospitals. Within a year, it plans to expand the program to nearly half of the country’s 45 hospitals, a story on CNN Money notes. The drones will make up to 150 deliveries a day.


Previously, it took an average of four hours to make an emergency delivery to a hospital. With a drone, those deliveries can be completed in 15 minutes, Jean Philbert Nsengimana, Rwanda’s minister of information and communication technology, says in the story.


“In certain cases it was really bad,” Nsengimana says. Roads could become impassable during the rainy season, slowing vital deliveries from the National Center for Blood Transfusion.


It’s cost-prohibitive to keep every supply on-hand in the country’s hospitals, so some medicines are only delivered to a hospital when there’s a specific need, Nsengimana says. This is problematic, however, if a patient is hemorrhaging, and a certain type of blood isn’t available. Postpartum hemorrhaging is the leading cause of death for pregnant women in Rwanda, CNN Money explains.


The Zipline drones are fixed-wing drones which resemble small planes with a long wing, rather than quadcopters, the most common type of small drone. Fixed-wing drones are more efficient, allowing Zipline’s drones to complete trips up to 93 miles. Each 31-pound drone’s wingspan is about six feet.


As the drone flies over a hospital, it releases a package. The package then slowly descends using a disposable parachute. Nsengimana says his government is convinced the drones are safe, in part because they have emergency parachutes that deploy when the system fails.


“In the worst case scenario, if an aircraft went completely out of control, it wouldn’t cause any significant damage,” Nsengimana says.


What are your thoughts on the use of drones in global medical logistics? Will their use soon be commonplace?