UC San Diego Health Tests Drones to Deliver Medical Samples

UC San Diego Health is conducting a drone trial with the overall goal of delivering medical samples around the medical campus. UCSD Health is the second medical campus to utilize drone technology.

by Paul Sisson, The San Diego Union-Tribune / March 2, 2020
A drone is flown near the Moores Cancer Center in San Diego on Feb. 27, 2020. UC San Diego Health has launched a pilot project to test the use of aerial drones to transport medical samples, supplies and documents between Jacobs Medical Center and 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. TNS

(TNS) — On Thursday afternoon, a white unmanned drone spun up its four propellers, pulling itself into the sky from a landing pad not much larger than a coffee shop table, hovering far overhead for a moment before lowering back to the spot where it started.

As trips go, it was not particularly fruitful. But the demonstration, conducted under the scrutiny of news cameras, was really an announcement of things to come, a technological "hello world" to those who will soon see such quadcopters buzzing through the sky, carrying medical samples from university medical facilities to labs more than a mile away.

At least, that's the goal of the drone trial now underway at UC San Diego Health.

Matthew Jenusaitis, chief administrative officer for innovation and transformation at UCSD, made it clear that in order to get to the point where drones are flying medical samples around the medical campus, they must pass a first round of tests to make sure they can operate safely and predictably in the real world.

"Our goal is first to gather information; from there we'll better understand the opportunities for applying this technology more broadly," Jenusaitis said. "That is what technological advancement is all about, pushing the envelope so we can understand the possibilities."

The technology that the project is using comes from Matternet, a Mountain View-based company working with United Parcel Service to offer commercial drone service at hospitals in the United States. The partnership, noted Mark Taylor, director of healthcare strategy at UPS, said the UCSD trial is one of the first in the nation.

"UC San Diego Health is only the second medical campus in the country approved by the FAA to deploy drone technology," Taylor said.

The university announced in late January that it will conduct a proof-of-concept trial, using drones to carry dummy payloads only about 1,000 feet, the distance between Jacobs Medical Center and Moores Cancer Center. Both are situated near each other on UCSD's east campus, providing a low-risk flight path over several outpatient buildings that are part of the larger medical campus east of Interstate 5 and south of Genesee Avenue.

The plan is to keep the drones flying below 300 feet so they don't interfere with aircraft. Once the short hop over to Moores and back is perfected, the plan is to venture further afield, sending medical samples, supplies and paperwork over to the Center for Advanced Laboratory Medicine, which is situated about 1.5 miles north of Jacobs. Such a trip would be a much bigger endeavor, as it would involve having drones fly over ground that is not owned by the university.

If all goes well, UCSD will explore the possibility of venturing even further afield, perhaps connecting to outlying medical clinics by air.

Jarrod McDonald, associate director of health system innovation at UCSD, said the basic test flights have already started between Jacobs and Moores. After another week and a half of practice, he said, transporting actual samples should be possible. Transport to the lab property could begin in three weeks if the initial round of testing currently underway is successful.

The drones are equipped with automatic safety equipment to keep them from crashing, and that equipment, officials said, includes a small parachute to slow a drone's descent in the event of a power failure.

©2020 The San Diego Union-Tribune, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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