UAVs in healthcare

You might have heard about the use of drones to support humanitarian actions. So, today we are going to see how drones or UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) can also have an impact in the healthcare sector in developing contexts.

Written by Paola Fava


While drones have been mostly piloted in sectors such as transport, energy, water management, urban planning and disaster risk management/disaster recovery, they have only recently been more widely accepted within the medical community.

For example, there are some interesting experiences from the African Continent. In Ghana, UNFPA and other experts on African health systems have identified five main scenarios for the use of drones in healthcare [1]:

  • emergency medicine for a mother after giving birth;
  • out of stock delivery of medicaments/contraceptives;
  • additional delivery during a vaccination campaign;
  • emergency treatment of severe malaria in children;
  • antiretroviral therapy for pregnant women with HIV.

Particularly, an interesting example of using a drone for delivery of medical supplies is provided by Zipline, whose drones have been used in Rwanda to deliver and distribute blood to transfusion facilities [2]. The ability to distribute blood on demand has the strong advantage of avoiding having to store blood in local hospitals as blood itself has a very short shelf life and strict storage requirements. Local people call it the ‘Sky Ambulance’. Zipline technology has been promoted in Rwanda in 2016 with support from the Government, while Tanzania announced the adoption of the Zipline technology in 2017. Five simple steps (order by text message, pack, launch, direct delivery and drone recovery) are required to guarantee blood safe delivery to remote health centres, as shown in this video.

But it’s not just about blood delivery…

In Malawi, in 2016, Unicef and Matternet piloted the use of drones to fasten HIV testing procedures in order to assure an early diagnosis of HIV and promote early treatments. Just to give an idea, in Malawi, it currently takes an average of 11 days to get samples from the health centre to a testing lab, and up to eight weeks for the results to be delivered back. The longer is the delay between test and results, the higher is the default rate of the patient [3]. Drones could play a key role in reducing this delay.

Another very interesting and promising application is the TU Delft Ambulance Drone, developed at the TU Delft University in Holland. This is a prototype that integrates a cardiac defibrillator, a 2-way communication radio and a video into the drone. A smartphone app is used to call the drone during an emergency. Once the drone arrives, bystanders would be instructed on how to perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and start using the automatic defibrillator until the emergency services arrive to take over.

So, what’s next now?

Rishi Madhok, an emergency physician at the University of California at San Francisco hospital has identified three main stages of drone usage: “reconnaissance”, where drones provide aerial photography of the scene of an accident or natural disaster; “delivery”, where drones transport needed medical equipment and drugs; and, finally, “medical command”, where drones, through their video sensors, provide high fidelity data and two-way communication between providers and responders — or even lay people — on the scene [4].

As the first two stages are now reality, we might be very close to the third stage of drone use.



[1] Drones for Development

[2] TED Talk, Keller Rinaudo, CEO ZIpline International Inc.

[3] Malawi tests first unmanned aerial vehicle flights for HIV early infant diagnosis, UNICEF News Note, March 2016

[4] ‘Here come the drones’ by Michael Levin-Epstein, Telemedicine Magazine 


Photo credits: Pixabay

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *