Using remotely-piloted drones, blood products such as those transfused into patients may be quickly and safely transported to remote accident or natural catastrophe sites, according to the first study of its kind.
Scientists have found that large bags of blood products can maintain temperature and cellular integrity while transported by drones.
"For rural areas that lack access to nearby clinics, or that may lack the infrastructure for collecting blood products or transporting them on their own, drones can provide that access," said Timothy Amukele, assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins University in the US.
Drones may also help to improve distribution of blood products and the quality of care in urban centres, said Amukele.
Researchers have previously studied the impact of drone transportation on the chemical, hematological and microbial makeup of drone-flown blood samples and found that none were negatively affected.
The study examines the effects of drone transportation on larger amounts of blood products used for transfusion, which have significantly more complex handling, transport and storage requirements compared to blood samples for laboratory testing.
For the study, researchers purchased six units of red blood cells, six units of platelets and six units of unthawed plasma and then packed the 2-3 units into a cooler, in keeping with weight restrictions for the transport drone.
The cooler was then attached to a commercial drone equipped with a camera mount, which the team removed and replaced with the cooler.
For each test, the drone was flown by remote control a distance of approximately 13 to 20 kilometers while 100 meters above ground. This flight took up to 26.5 minutes.
The team designed the test to maintain temperature for the red blood cells, platelets and plasma units.
They used wet ice, pre-calibrated thermal packs and dry ice for each type of blood product, respectively.
Temperature monitoring was constant, keeping with transport and storage requirements for blood components. The team conducted the tests in an unpopulated area, and a certified, ground-based pilot flew the drone.
Following flight, researchers centrifuged the units of red blood cells and checked them for red blood cell damage.
They checked the platelets for changes in pH as well as the number of platelets and the plasma units for evidence of air bubbles, which would indicate thawing.
The team plans further and larger studies and hopes to test methods of active cooling, such as programming a cooler to maintain a specific temperature.
"My vision is that in the future, when a first responder arrives to the scene of an accident, he or she can test the victim's blood type right on the spot and send for a drone to bring the correct blood product," said Amukele.
The findings were published in the journal Transfusion.