Drone-Delivered Blood Is Fresh on Arrival

Large samples of blood delivered by drone maintain their integrity over distances of 8 to 12 miles.

At least one company, California-based Zipline, is on track to deliver blood and other medical supplies to clinics in impoverished nations. But what's to say the blood will arrive in the same unspoiled condition as when it left?

Timothy Amukele, an assistant professor of pathology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, and his colleagues are the first medical team to investigate an answer to that question and publish their results.

After conducting several experimental test flights, the researchers found that large samples of blood delivered by drone maintain their integrity over distances of 8 to 12 miles. The finding lends more credibility to efforts already starting up around the world to ship life-saving blood by drone to remote villages or sites affected by catastrophic events.

For their study, the researchers purchased 18 units of blood products typically used in medical emergencies: red blood cells, plasma and platelets. They packed each kind of blood in a 5-quart cooler along with a different cooling agent. For the red blood cells, they used regular ice; for the plasma, they used dry ice; and for the platelets, they used cold thermal packs.

The cooler was attached to the unmanned aircraft, a commercial S900-model drone, and then flown by remote control a distance between 8 and 12 miles at 328 feet above the ground. The longest of the flights took about 26 minutes. After the samples had finished their journey, the researchers analyzed them in a laboratory. Among other things, they checked for cell damage and any changes in pH level. But everything checked out fine. The blood had arrived as fresh as when it had left.

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This study builds on work that Amukele and his team did last year, which looked at whether the acceleration upon take-off and the vibration off rough landings affected blood samples. Results from that study showed that the blood suffered no damage and was perfectly good for clinical use.

Amukele would like to do a larger study involving more samples. He also wants to develop a cooler that automatically maintains a specific temperature, eliminating the need for ice or thermal packs.

"My vision is that in the future, when a first responder arrives to the scene of an accident, he or she can test the victim's blood type right on the spot and send for a drone to bring the correct blood product," he said in a press release.

Their study appears in the November issue of the journal "Transfusion."

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