Drones are nothing new. They may not have been part of our daily lives – unless you’re in the military – but it is becoming more common place to hear about them in the news and the cunning new ways they are trying to infiltrate into society… and not just hover over it.

Your initial interaction with drones, also known as an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), may be the new age of retail delivery. Currently, huge market players, such as Amazon, are investing in drone delivery and the technology behind it; with it even being reported that drones could add £42bn to UK GDP by 2030. However, drones are now advancing at such a rapid rate, companies and even countries are seeing far greater value, beyond the retail industry, in the speed, efficiency and cost-effectiveness these machines can bring – especially to critical health services.

Companies and government bodies are now more than ever eager to harness the power of remote-controlled aircraft to aid in a variety of situations, from performing dangerous humanitarian tasks and tracking people using thermal imaging, to delivering vital medical supplies to areas of the world which are typically difficult to reach.

An obvious modern-day use case of drones is for medication transportation. ZipLine, a San Francisco based startup, signed a contract earlier this year with the Rwandan government to trial transporting blood for transfusions across the country; Madagascan Vayu Drones delivers stool and blood samples to the country’s central laboratory for testing. UNICEF, the world’s leading organisation working for children in danger, has ongoing experimentation with sending drones to transport HIV blood tests from rural medical centres to laboratories.

But its not just medication delivery which drones can be used for, several other advances have also been made in drone use in broader medicine. There are several companies developing flying medical toolboxes, which can carry a variety of supplies including oxygen, or medical machinery to keep a patient alive until the medical team arrive. For example, the TU Delft Ambulance Drone is a prototype used for delivery of potentially life-saving automated defibrillators, in case of cardiac arrest, when the need to administer treatment is urgent.

Drones have the potential to revolutionise the healthcare industry, as well as the wider rescue, emergency and humanitarian services. In a recent report from DJI, the drone industry’s leading manufacturer, claimed that last year alone 65 lives were saved by drones – this demonstrates the growing potential these machines can bring. In January this year, two Australian teenagers were rescued when a lifesaving drone was used to drop them a floatation device when they were swept out in rough seas. This isn’t the first case of drones being used to deliver life-saving devices to people. Haul lines have been set up to deliver life vests to stranded people in hard to reach areas, and a drone has even been used to deliver water to a stranded kayaker.

The important thing to remember about the implementation of drones is the ongoing conversation on the rules in which they can be used. Drone regulations are commonly set by each countries aviation authority and do differ quite a large amount. The technology could hugely benefit many people in a positive manner, if the regulations are standardised, however regulations recently implemented have been designed to protect the public from unauthorised or dangerous uses of unmanned aerial vehicles – in more commercial senses. Geofencing drones is being policed heavily in the UK ever since a potentially catastrophic disaster occurred, when a drone flew within touching distance of a plane flying into Heathrow late last year. In the UK, the powers that be are happy to grant permission to fly drones, but for obvious reasons are not comfortable with drones being flown in built-up, heavily populated areas – this would be an issue when it comes to some of the use cases being developed, i.e medical emergency equipment delivery.

There is real potential for drones to have a revolutionary impact, especially in the delivery of medicine and medical equipment in hard to reach environments and places where healthcare is not readily accessible. We predict that it won’t be long before we see drones becoming an integral  part  of  lifesaving operations  around  the  world – and it is more than likely the number of  lives  saved  by  drones, be that via the delivery of medicine or rescue efforts,  will  grow  to  a  level  where  this simply becomes just a part of everyday life.

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By Fern Hugill and Daryl Bleach