Drones – once more commonly known for capturing spectacular bird’s-eye footage, roving into restricted airspace or making every Amazon deliveryman redundant (eventually) – are undergoing a noble rebrand. Unmanned aerial systems (UAS) are at the sharp end of a healthcare revolution.
Already, drones are saving countless lives – delivering medical supplies to areas that desperately need them, but are virtually inaccessible. In October 2016, Silicon Valley-based robotics company, Zipline, launched the world’s first national drone delivery operation in Rwanda. With 15 drones flying out of a single distribution centre, the government-backed initiative has seen blood, plasma and platelets whizzed to 21 hospitals throughout what is the most densely populated nation in mainland Africa.
To date, this has translated to more than 300,000 air miles, delivering 7,000 units of blood over 4,000 flights; a third of these being urgent, life-saving incidents. The gratifying upshot: Zipline’s superfast service now provides more than a fifth of Rwanda’s blood supply outside of its capital, ensuring hospitals never run dry of blood. This has boosted use of certain products by 175%, reducing waste or spoilage (a major problem, due to the strict temperature requirements of blood transportation) by a near-perfect 95%.
“Billions of people on earth lack access to critical medicine,” says Zipline CEO Keller Rinaudo. “In East Africa, Zipline’s drones bring people the medicine they need, when they need it and in a way that reduces waste, cost and inventory, while increasing access and saving lives. We’ve been hard at work to improve our technology and are ready to help save lives in America and around the world.”
In August 2017, Zipline announced the world’s most extensive drone delivery service in Tanzania, which seeks to provide emergency vaccines, HIV medication, antibiotics, surgical materials and blood transfusion supplies to 10mn people. There are also plans to expand Zipline’s service to the United States. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) recently announced the UAS Integration Pilot Programme (UASIPP), which is set to allow governments across the US to partner with private companies to accelerate safe, drone-based advancements. Any Zipline projects chosen as part of the UASIPP will likely commence operation before the end of the year.
This airborne innovation is not limited to blood. In late 2014, a band of public health experts and philanthropists vowed to upgrade contraception access for women in Africa’s most hard-to-reach villages, where roads are literally washed away by floods, meaning medical supply chains are stopped dead. The result was Dr. One, a joint venture between the Dutch government and United Nations, that saw condoms loaded on to five-foot drones and showered across parts of Ghana. The pilot scheme slashed delivery time from two days to a mere 30 minutes, sparking interest for similar trials in Ethiopia, Zambia, Rwanda and Tanzania.
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As drones represent the perfect blend of pinpoint accuracy and breakneck speed, an early utilisation within healthcare was disaster relief. Various drones delivered aid packages in the immediate fallout of the Haitian earthquake, and drone technology was used to collect data imagery in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines the following year. Currently, the William Carey University College of Osteopathic Medicine in Mississippi is developing a drone capable of delivering telemedicine kits that can swiftly connect doctors to victims of a natural disaster or terror attack. Complete with Google Glass, the kit would enable a bystander to treat someone in need of emergency care, while being coached live by a trained professional.
Alongside Zipline – which in early April unveiled the fastest commercial delivery drone on Earth, robust enough to withstand heavy wind, rain or high altitude – there are many more fledgling firms. Flirtey, a Nevada-based startup that made history in March 2016 – completing the first federally-sanctioned fully autonomous drone delivery in a US urban area – hopes to shuttle first aid kits, emergency medication and defibrillators. It retains some altogether broader aims, too. True to its slogan, “Anything anytime anywhere”, Flirtey enjoyed another first – completing the world’s first pizza-by-drone delivery, in association with Domino’s in New Zealand.
San Francisco Bay Area company, Matternet, possesses its own grand plans: a network of “flying things” to bring medical supplies to remote locations all over the world. Though a lot of its work is focused in Africa (a recent collaboration with UNICEF and VillageReach saw Matternet drones transport HIV tests in Malawi), last October the firm launched a medical transport network in Lugano, Switzerland, in partnership with Swiss Post. The first autonomous, non-pilot network in an urban area, Matternet drones have so far made more than 350 successful deliveries, averaging between five and 15 per day.
Questions for consideration
The positive impact of drone technology within all facets of healthcare verges on exponential, although with it arise certain concerns. Sebastian Allen-Johnstone, Associate at nations law firm, Mills & Reeve, is optimistic yet cautious.
“Like any cutting-edge advancement, drones pose a number of questions for consideration,” he says. “Chief among these include privacy and liability. Privacy is mainly a concern in cases where the drone involves filming, photography or other collection of information about individuals and their activity. Liability comes into play as responsibility for damage or injury caused by drones may be difficult to attribute. While the operator would normally be responsible, in cases where the technology failed to work properly, a manufacturer or seller might be held liable.”
Allen-Johnstone adds: “Aviation control and regulation will also need to be considered. Requirements for drone licensing, pilot training, no-fly areas and geo-fencing are under consideration and review around the world. These regulations, and upcoming changes in response to incidents where drones have interfered with aviation or caused damage or danger to people on the ground, will need to be heeded if healthcare organisations wish to avoid criminal liability.”
Birdie aims to reinvent elderly care with tech
British startup Birdie has announced it has raised £8.2 million to invest in innovation and scale up the business.
The company's announcement is timely as it follows the criticism of the UK government over their lack of a plan for social care, despite acknowledging the sector is in crisis - around a quarter of the UK's home care providers are on the brink of bankruptcy due to a lack of funds and staffing.
Birdie was born with a mission to "radically improve the lives of millions of older adults", by using app-based solutions, IoT and machine learning to put preventative care at the forefront. The company was founded by Max Parmentier, after experiencing his own frustrations with the care system - his grandfather struggled with the impact of life in a care home, but lacked any other option.
In 2017 Parmentier partnered with venture builder Kamet Ventures to set up Birdie, in a bid to fix this problem. Since then, Birdie has partnered with almost 500 providers across the UK, and supports more than 20,000 older people every week. In the past 12 months alone the number of people Birdie supports has got six times greater.
Birdie’s solution is an app to help care providers deliver more coordinated, personalised and preventative care, by giving them access to digital assessments, medication scheduling and planning tools. By using digital tools to take care of admin, staff have more time to spend with their care recipients.
The new investment will be used to fund Birdie’s next phase of growth in the UK, as the company scales to meet the rapidly growing demand of the aging population. The company will also invest in product innovation, creating new features to address customer requests.
In addition, Birdie is piloting new care models, including partnering with the NHS to identify COVID-19 symptoms, building predictive pharmacy models with AI, and helping health authorities to detect early warning signs of patients’ health risks.
Internally, Birdie is committed to having a progressive company ethos. All salaries are transparent, and staff work asynchronously to maximise flexibility and equity. Staff members also volunteer in their local community during office hours, and the company offsets all its emissions.
These efforts have led to numerous awards, including having the best SME culture in the UK, an Honorable Mention in the Health category of Fast Company’s 2021 World Changing Ideas Awards, and innovation in care at the LangBuisson awards.
“We believe the future of care for older people should be helping them to live at home for as long as possible through the delivery of personalised and preventative care" Parmentier said.
"Birdie is already the partner of choice for caregivers up and down the UK, and this new funding will help us rapidly increase the number we partner with and what we can offer them - meaning more people benefiting from more affordable, quality care. We’re proud of our mission and the values we embody to pursue it.”