May 12, 2020

During a Pandemic, Using Drones to Deliver Medical Supplies and Prescription Drugs Makes Great Sense

But medical drone delivery is a great idea at any time
Justin Leventhal Research Associate, Darcy N. Bryan, MD Senior Affiliated Scholar

Innovations in healthcare are generally stymied, often owing to heavy regulatory barriers set up with the help of powerful special interest groups. However, during the COVID-19 pandemic, many of those barriers have been temporarily suspended, giving healthcare innovators a potential window to try out new ideas and methods in response to a real world crisis.

One of the most promising of these innovations involves the use of drones to deliver prescription drugs and medical supplies, which is being actively tested in states such as Florida, North Carolina, North Dakota and Virginia. In North Carolina, the medical drone delivery program has been expanded, and a separate trial in Baltimore successfully delivered a kidney for transplant. Test programs so far have been promising.

For many Americans right now, the widespread use of drones to deliver prescriptions and medical supplies could have immediate and significant benefits. Both authors take care of family members in their 70s who are sheltering in place and need assistance in running errands, such as pharmacy pick up. Drone delivery would save time, ensure personal autonomy of the housebound, and, more importantly, prevent regular trips into a crowded stores that increase the risk of catching or transmitting a deadly virus.

Furthermore, even after the pandemic eases or ends, drone delivery of prescriptions and other medical supplies will remain important for many people in underserved parts of the country. Those living in rural areas with limited access to healthcare facilities will greatly benefit from drone delivery, as will people with poor mobility, compromised immune systems, or other personal constraints that make travel difficult or dangerous.

Use of drone technology isn’t new in other parts of the world. Medical drone delivery has already been successfully implemented in areas such as Ghana and Rwanda. Why do these less technologically advanced countries have medical drones flying through the skies, making life saving deliveries, while “first world” countries such as the United States are just starting to implement this technology? A recent paper by Robert Graboyes, Darcy Bryan, and John Coglianese at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University gives a number of reasons.

To begin with, in the United States, road conditions as well as widespread air travel allow for abundant ground and air transportation options that aren’t available in many developing countries. The lack of reliable ground transit and relatively empty skies of underdeveloped nations make air transportation with drones a compelling option. The United States simply has more manned aircraft flying through the air that could accidentally collide with drones, resulting in devastating loss of life.

And while the sheer number of flying vehicles alone shouldn’t be enough to stymie drone delivery, managing air traffic using our antiquated air traffic control technology and a mid-20th century regulatory apparatus presents a significant barrier to enjoying the lifesaving benefits of drones. System inflexibility is an inevitable side effect of the complex regulations that have built up around flight in the United States over the decades—rules written well before current technological advances were envisioned.

The task of unmanned flight is incredibly complex as well. The paper points out that before these vehicles can be safely and widely introduced, significant technological problems ranging from the physical limitations of existing drones structures to software functionality and security must be overcome. As with most new technologies, at least some of these problems will be worked out through trial and practical use. Implementation with a wide array of unmanned pilots and social and corporate innovators will be critical for productive problem solving in the future.

It’s impossible to know all the solutions to these problems ahead of time, just as it was impossible to know 50 years ago, when the United States set up the National Airspace System, that medical drones would be used today. But giving this new industry more room to grow will absolutely speed up the process by drawing in more partnerships and resources.

As the Mercatus paper also notes, encouraging new talent to develop this industry by removing unreasonable and prohibitive regulatory hurdles will require cooperation by numerous federal agencies, including the Federal Aviation Administration, Federal Communications Commission, US Department of Homeland Security, US Department of Defense, US Department of Health and Health and Human Services, Food and Drug Administration, and National Institutes of Health. Federal regulations from these agencies touch virtually all parts of a medical drone delivery program. Unfortunately, a coordinated and coherent regulatory policy among the various governmental agencies involved seems unlikely.

Intra-agency cooperation and accommodation can be slow and confusing. Medical drone delivery is running up against the regulatory barriers that threaten the industry even now. For example, several companies in Florida are attempting to set up drone deliveries to a retirement community in order to help protect its members during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the Federal Aviation Administration has been slow to allow drone deliveries on a larger scale, primarily only allowing limited test programs of small scale like Florida’s.

Medical delivery drones will not be a complete solution, but their use in a pandemic to ensure social distancing while speeding up delivery of needed medicines to America’s most vulnerable communities is an opportunity worth championing.

Like so many other things, the distribution of prescription drugs and medical supplies in the United States has been complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Many people, particularly elderly and medically vulnerable individuals, justifiably fear leaving their homes. Additionally, fewer people are flying, temporarily clearing the airspace and creating a safer environment to test new uses for drones. These developments present society with both an obligation and an opportunity to begin using medical delivery drones.

At the very least, we should allow the widespread testing of medical drone technology to obtain better data about how best to implement their use once the country returns to normal. Wider and more liberal testing would also allow the industry to identify and address the most pressing technological problems associated with drone delivery while protecting America’s most vulnerable citizens during these difficult, tragic times.

Photo by ADEK BERRY/AFP via Getty Images

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