Skip Navigation

Breakthroughs

Drone Delivery

By Chanapa Tantibanchachai
Timothy Amukele
Timothy Amukele is the director of the Clinical Laboratories at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center and the medical director of the Makerere University–Johns Hopkins University laboratory in Kampala, Uganda.

The same drone technology that Amazon.com is hoping to deploy for deliveries in 30 minutes or less could also be used to relay lifesaving blood products to first responders at the scene of an accident.

In what is believed to be the first proof-of-concept study of its kind, Johns Hopkins researchers found that despite strict takeoff weight limits, transport drones can safely deliver large bags of red blood cells, blood plasma, or platelets—all routinely transfused into patients— using coolers that constantly control temperatures.

While the Johns Hopkins team had already studied the impact of drone transportation on smaller amounts of blood products (like the vials used for lab tests), examining the effects of drone transportation on larger amounts of blood products was necessary because they have significantly more complex handling, transport, and storage requirements.

For the study, the team packed 18 units of blood products and cooling materials like ice, thermal packs, and dry ice into a 5-quart cooler. The cooler was then attached to a drone for a roughly 30-minute flight over approximately 8 to 12 miles at 100 meters above ground. The team constantly monitored the temperature in keeping with transport and storage requirements for blood components.

Following flight, the samples were transported to Johns Hopkins Hospital, where they were tested for cell damage. The team found that all the samples arrived intact.

The findings add to evidence that remotely piloted drones are an effective, safe, and timely way to get blood products to remote accident or natural catastrophe sites, or other time-sensitive destinations.

“For rural areas that lack access to nearby clinics, or that may lack the infrastructure for collecting blood products or transporting them on their own, drones can provide that access,” says Timothy Amukele, an assistant professor of pathology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Drones also can help in urban centers to improve distribution of blood products and the quality of care, he says.

The team plans larger studies in the United States and overseas, and hopes to test methods of active cooling, such as programming a cooler to maintain a specific temperature.

“My vision is that in the future, when a first responder arrives at 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,” Amukele says.

Illustration of a drone transporting blood
Illustration above by Carl Wiens; Portrait by Caroline Andrieu
The same drone technology used to deliver your online Amazon order may now be used to relay blood products to accident scenes, emergency sites, and hospitals.

Other Departments

  • Survey
    New findings in health, including the benefits of having a health care advocate, how same-sex marriage laws reduce teen suicide, and why household cleansers are dangerous for toddlers' eyes.
  • Conversation
    With Sarah Hemminger on immersion mentoring through her nonprofit, Thread.
  • Just Curious
    Why do bugs love to bug me?
  • MedTech
    Apps, gadgets, and other innovations that are advancing health and health science.
  • Viewpoint
    Jed Fahey on the truth versus the hype surrounding superfoods.
  • Book Report
    What you should be reading.
  • Experience
    How Paralympian Dee Smith survived cancer and got back to sailing.
  • Expert Advice
    How can I keep my eyes healthy?
  • 10 Things
    Habits for better sleep.