Drones have been used to deliver sunscreen to a conference in Palm Springs, Calif., and pizza to a family in New Zealand, but they’re also in the air for far more urgent purposes — such as saving lives.
In fact, in some cases, drones could carry defibrillators to heart attack victims faster than an ambulance, according to a paper published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Researchers simulated emergency situations and found they could get automatic external defibrillators to the scene an average of 16 minutes faster by drone than by ambulance.
If bystanders were willing and able to use the devices, the shorter response time could save lives, said lead author Andreas Claesson, a registered nurse. Restrictions on drones have limited their use in medicine. But that’s starting to change, Claesson said. “We’re getting there — showing this save lives and costs,” he added.
Here are five other ways drones have either changed health care or are promising to do so.
To deliver medication to rural Americans
Health Wagon, a clinic based in Southwest Virginia, has eyed the use of drones as a way to deliver medication to uninsured residents in isolated pockets of Appalachia. Two years ago, the clinic partnered with NASA researchers to make history, flying the first drone approved by the Federal Aviation Administration to deliver medication. Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe referred to the test then as a “Kitty Hawk moment.” But FAA restrictions have prevented the clinic from regularly using the drone.
To shower contraceptives over sub-Saharan Africa
The United Nations has employed 5-foot drones to air drop condoms over rural parts of Ghana, where a fraction of women have access to contraceptives. Other countries — including Tanzania, Rwanda, Zambia, Ethiopia, and Mozambique — are also considering adopting the use of drones to ensure deliveries that once took days can be made in mere minutes.
To transport blood samples to labs for swifter HIV testing
One in 10 people in Malawi is HIV-positive, but the nation has only eight labs that can test for the disease. For years, the nation has relied on motorcycle drivers to deliver blood samples from rural villages for testing. According to the BBC, California-based Matternet has partnered with UNICEF to try out drones in hopes it can help labs turn around results faster.
To get Google (GOOGL) Glass to disaster victims
The William Carey University College of Osteopathic Medicine in Hattiesburg, Miss., is developing a drone to deliver telemedicine kits that would get doctors in touch with victims of natural disasters or terrorist attacks. The drone would deliver the kit, complete with Google Glass, to help connect a bystander who would be walked through treating someone in need of emergency care. As is the case with Health Wagon, the FAA must loosen regulations for this concept to be widely used.
To get blood units to surgeons in remote parts of Rwanda
Last fall, California-based Zipline started flying commercial drones from its distribution center in Muhanga, Rwanda, to nearly two dozen hospitals in the country. Health workers at remote clinics can order supplies via text. And Zipline promises to air drop the delivery in as soon as 15 minutes, cutting time on trips that once took hours to complete by car. Zipline, which has already completed more than 350 flights, claims on its website that its Muhanga facility will become Rwanda’s busiest airport sometime this summer.