Human tissue was flown between two hospitals in Antwerp on Monday using a drone. According to those involved, this is the first time that drone transport of human tissue has happened in Europe. In the near future, drones will have to fly over medical supplies, blood samples, and biopsies regularly. In the longer term, it is even conceivable that patients will be transported by drone.
Mission parameters of drone transport
The test flight with human tissue on board took place from ZNA Middelheim to GZA Hospitals Campus Sint-Augustinus, over a distance of 1.2 km (0.75 miles) as the crow flies. At a cruising altitude of 80 meters (262 feet), the drone took four minutes to cover this distance. For safety reasons, the aircraft flew as much as possible over green zones and sparsely populated areas. Also, it had not yet flown at maximum speed.
The drone used to transport the tissue is an X-8 multicopter developed by SABCA. To be allowed to fly over urban areas, it is equipped with an integrated parachute according to the ASTM F3322-18 standard. As soon as there is a failure in the propulsion, this parachute is automatically ejected in order to guarantee a soft landing.
The flight was operated by the Antwerp operator Helicus. This company is the first European operator to have an operational authorization to operate flights above a city and out of the pilot's field of view (BVLOS) under EU legislation. It uses its own Command & Control Center for this. The procedures used were partly developed within the European SAFIR-Med project.
The drone takes off from the roof. Photo: GZA Hospitals
A first with human tissue
In June, the first drone flight over built-up areas took place in Antwerp. At that time, however, there was no question of medical transport. This time the drone had a tumor on board, which had recently been removed from a patient during an operation. That tissue must be sent to a laboratory for analysis as soon as possible so that it can be determined during the operation whether more tissue needs to be removed. Transporting such biopsies by drone prevents precious minutes from being lost.
According to Mikael Shamim, CEO of Helicus, this is just the beginning.
“Much more is possible, also with other samples, blood and medication, for example. The future of drones is a step-by-step approach. We are currently focusing on fairly short distances of which we know the start and end point, but we are also already preparing longer distances,” he told VRT.
Directly involved in the test flight. Photo: GZA Hospitals
Transporting AEDs and even patients by drone
As an example of a drone flight where the final destination is not known in advance, Shamim mentions transporting a defibrillator to someone with a cardiac arrest.
“In concrete terms, we could supply defibrillators where necessary. Research shows that the model of Automated External Defibrillators (AED) along the road does not work. You have to intervene quickly, but you don't know where such an AED is. So the challenge is to use drones for that.”
Ultimately, it is conceivable that patients will be transported by drone taxi.
Shamim: “In the longer term – although it has already been shown that this is already possible – we could even transport patients via drones, but there are still a few things that need to be tweaked at the legislative level.”
To this end, vertiports could be set up on the roofs of hospitals, or existing helipads could possibly be used.
Medical transport drones in the Netherlands
In the Netherlands, too, hard work is being done to enable medical transport flights by means of drones. To this end, a consortium including PostNL and ANWB MAA regularly conducts test flights at various locations in the country. The medical drone of this consortium was also recently involved in the U-space pilot project AMU-LED. This included testing how to deal with the prioritization of drone flights in the same airspace.
(cover photo: GZA Hospitals)
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