Drones have been used to do everything from taking aerial photos to delivering Amazon items, but how would you feel about sending a lab sample across town via drone? That reality may be nearer than we’d like to think.

Using drone technology to deliver medical supplies is something that will require time, research and money before it can be implemented on a large scale, but this week, we’re interested in the here and now. What’s the present state of using drones to carry medical supplies, and what are the benefits and consequences of this technology? Find out below!

The Big Picture

Currently, there are places where drones have been entrusted with the responsibility of transporting certain medical supplies. Rwanda and Ghana are two nations on the forefront of testing this process, sending shipments of medications through mountains and outfitting otherwise disconnected communities with blood and other medical supplies. Both are working with a U.S.-based firm called Zipline to implement the delivery system.

The countries join 10 pilot programs taking place in the U.S. under the jurisdiction of the Department of Transportation (DOT) as they test the efficacy of using drones for purposes currently prohibited by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). They hope to research the reliability and security of delivery drones to help develop the technology enough to implement an Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM) system for medical deliveries in the United States.

Benefits of Using Drone Couriers

Using drones to deliver life-saving medical supplies seems like it would have plenty of benefits. Two of the most common advantages outlined by advocates are their usefulness in disaster relief and lower transportation costs. Drones that received special exemption from the FAA’s rules requiring drones to fly at altitudes below 400 feet were already used to provide vital medications and supplies to Puerto Rico, Florida and Texas after multiple hurricanes caused destruction in the areas, and proponents of the technology seem excited to continue improving these processes.

Additionally, after the upfront costs of buying the equipment and training individuals to use them for medical transport, drones would make it relatively cheap to deliver items from hospitals to labs and even to patient homes. Without paying for things like driver and gas costs, the upfront costs could be outweighed by savings in a matter of a few years.

Issues Facing Drone Couriers

There are quite a few issues with using drones for medical transport that are tough to unpack. It’s unlikely this technology will be used any time soon and, when it does, it will probably be most effective in large cities where traditional couriers face delays due to traffic. Additionally, the range of these drones is unlikely to reach far enough to tackle long-distance travel, limiting the scope of delivery to a small radius. There are other challenges facing drone technology in medical transport aside from efficacy.

One of the most important jobs of a medical courier is ensuring an unbroken chain of custody from start to finish. Unmanned drones, while trackable and generally under the control of humans, cannot necessarily ensure a specimen hasn’t been tampered with or altered because they are, by definition, unmanned. With the importance of delivering untainted samples, supplies and medications and maintaining HIPAA compliance in considering what constitutes reliable transport, handing delivery responsibility over to a machine may not be something people are willing to do any time soon.

Lastly, some critics state that the use of drones to deliver medical supplies—at least in the cases of impoverished communities—is that the expense should be allocated to paying for more doctors and medical professionals on the ground. The Ghana Medical Association even called for the suspension of their program: stating, “The use of drones without the necessary improvement in the human resource capacity will not [contribute] to the health benefit of the country in its quest to improve healthcare delivery.”

Compound these issues with the fact that drones will add more vehicles to an already crowded U.S. airspace, and you can see why the argument about whether or not to implement medical drone delivery programs in America is unlikely to come to a quick and decisive conclusion.

If you’re in need of a reliable NE medical courier company to transport your supplies, medications or samples and can’t wait around for drones to do it, ProMed Logistics is the team for you. Our dispatchers and drivers have the experience and quality record you can trust to get your deliveries where they need to be on time, every time.