UC San Diego Health launches new drone project to transport medical supplies
Published - 03/09/20 - 09:00 AM | 1745 views | 3 3 comments | 17 17 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Drones are currently being tested between Jacobs Medical Center, Moores Cancer Center and the Center for Advanced Laboratory Medicine. COURTESY PHOTO
Drones are currently being tested between Jacobs Medical Center, Moores Cancer Center and the Center for Advanced Laboratory Medicine. COURTESY PHOTO

UC San Diego Health has launched a pilot project to test the use of aerial drones to transport medical samples, supplies and documents.

It’s all part of the growing movement toward using drones, unmanned aerial vehicles, to deliver everything from packages to food to medical supplies.

The university’s medical drone pilot program is being tested between Jacobs Medical Center, Moores Cancer Center and the Center for Advanced Laboratory Medicine, all in La Jolla. The goal is to speed delivery of services and patient care currently managed through ground transport. 

James Killeen, M.D., UC San Diego clinical professor for emergency medicine, said drone technology will likely save substantial time and improve health-care services.

“I work in emergency care and we need to transport blood and other medical samples, and using car transport now through La Jolla can be quite cumbersome with all the traffic, which isn’t going to change any time soon,” said Killeen. “So, we are running medical drones from one end of [the UC] campus to the other, to validate that the safety and integrity of the specimens can be preserved transferring them to a lab about 1 1/2 miles away.”

Noting Switzerland has successfully run medical specimen drones for three years now, Killeen added, “This pilot project will last about six months until September or October. In the meantime, we’re gathering the flight data to validate that this is a plausible alternative to ground transport.”

Timing can be critical when it comes to delivery of medical supplies, said Killeen.

“Being able to get our labs tests in faster results in quicker turnaround times for our [health] provider teams,” he said. “Hopefully, by getting people earlier, better-quality care, we can keep many of them out of the hospital and at home where they can do their normal daily activities.”

Offered Killeen as one example, “If somebody needs a blood transfusion from a specific type of donor, getting that specimen there by drone in 10 minutes, when it could take 20 to 30 minutes to drive down, this is transformational and actually optimizes patient safety and care.”

Killeen gave another medical example of rattlesnake venom. He noted hospitals carry only so much of it, and that drones could be the answer to getting lifesaving anti-venom wherever it’s needed quicker.

UC San Diego medical drone testing is part of a larger, ongoing three-year program by the city of San Diego, which was selected by the U.S. Department of Transportation to conduct testing as part of the unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) Integration Pilot Program (IPP). 

Working with several public and private sector partners, the city has been evaluating the feasibility of advanced UAS operations with numerous applications. Those include unmanned traffic management, night operations, flight over people, and flight beyond the visual line of sight.

Meanwhile, Uber is seriously exploring tapping the market for UAS with the creation of a new platform, Uber Elevate. 

Even McDonald’s in San Diego has gotten involved in exploring the potential of drone delivery. McDonald’s via Uber, however, won’t be sending drones straight to people’s doors. Rather, drones will be sent to designated “safe landing zones” where human couriers will pick up the food for transfer to residences. Uber has said it might also be possible for drones to be sent to parked Uber cars tagged with QR codes, which will then carry the goods to their final destinations.

San Diego’s role as a national leader in technology, coupled with complex airspace and mild weather that allows for year-round testing, makes it an ideal place for UAS testing. 

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