Beyond Visual Line of Sight: The Future of Drones in Healthcare

On October 1st, UPS Flight Forward, Inc.—a subsidiary of United Parcel Service (UPS)—announced that it had received the first full “Part 135 Standard” certification from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to operate an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) airline. UAVs, also known as drones, will initially be used by the company to deliver medical packages across hospital campuses nationwide. Eventually, the company plans to use its capabilities to deliver a variety of consumer items by air and to regularly fly beyond the operator’s visual line of sight (BVLOS). The new FAA certification confers that BVLOS privilege, without which commercial drone services are of limited use.

Immediately after receiving the BVLOS waiver, UPS flew a BVLOS mission across the WakeMed campus in Raleigh, North Carolina using a Matternet M2 quadcopter.

While the UPS certification is a big step in the right direction, broader reforms that remove regulatory restrictions for many drone pilots—not just one-off waivers for a handful of companies—will be essential to realizing the full benefits of this technology. Current regulations, such as prohibitions against BVLOS flights for most users, not flying over people, and flying under 400 feet in altitude restrict the applications of UAV technology in America.

In contrast, UAV medical deliveries BVLOS are now commonplace in several developing countries, including Rwanda and Ghana. Early implementation was easier in those countries because their airspaces are far less crowded than those over the United States. Reduced regulations that expand flight capabilities could allow for groundbreaking innovation, benefitting both America’s rural communities and busy urban areas during patients’ most critical moments.

Known for their use by militaries in combat, drones also have the potential to save lives, if our regulations allow it. Imagine needing blood or a vital organ during a busy urban area’s rush hour, or during an ice storm or flood. Your hospital does not have what you need, but another across town does. Under current regulations, it would take an extended amount of time for the patient to get the supplies vital to their survival through ground transportation. By using drones, the delivery time for life-saving supplies would be significantly reduced. Physicians from St. Agnes Hospital in Baltimore experimented with this when they flew a kidney destined for transplant 2.6 miles to another hospital in town. The result was a transport time of only 10 minutes, versus 15 to 20 by car. 

Zipline, a company operating the medical drone systems in Rwanda and Ghana, provide a combined population of 43 million people with timely access to life-saving medications they might not otherwise receive due to rugged road conditions. The company reports having saved upwards of 21,000 lives by using drones since the company’s inception in 2014.

Urban areas present especially difficult challenges, with more buildings, people, and commercial and civil airplane traffic. Rural areas, however, are not immune to risks, as there is still air traffic along with people, buildings, vegetation, and natural geographic features.

The task of safely integrating drones into US airspace will be challenging, and it will have to be accompanied by significant technological improvements in the drones and in their ground control systems, as well.

The future of drone use in healthcare is promising. UPS’s drones operating out of visual line of sight is one step along the way to fewer limitations on drone capabilities. It will be interesting to see how UPS’s efforts proceed, along with those of other early entrants. 

Photo credit: Mel Evans/AP/Shutterstock