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Syracuse, N.Y., Hospital Tests Medical Delivery Drones

A drone industry alliance and a Syracuse hospital have successfully completed a year-long project to prove the feasibility of making fast medical deliveries — rooftop to rooftop — with drones.

A drone hovering in the air.
(TNS) — A drone industry alliance and a Syracuse hospital have successfully completed a year-long project to prove the feasibility of making fast medical deliveries — rooftop to rooftop — with drones.

A team from the Nuair alliance, SUNY Upstate Medical University and DroneUp, a Virginia-based drone services company that is a member of the alliance, successfully delivered an unused Covid-19 test kit from one rooftop to another on the university’s campus in January.

Tony Basile, Nuair’s chief operating officer, said the flight was a “proof of concept” demonstration to show that medical deliveries can be made by drone when speed is essential, such as when tissue samples taken from a surgery patient must be delivered rapidly to a laboratory in a different building.

The flight took just two minutes compared with the seven minutes it would have taken someone to drive the test kit to the lab, he said.

To prove that drone deliveries can be scaled up, the team conducted more medical deliveries in three locations throughout Syracuse two weeks ago, sending supplies from the hospital to a lab, from the hospital to a surgery center, and from a pharmacy to a second hospital.

Nuair is a not-for-profit alliance that runs a 50-mile drone test corridor between Syracuse and the Oneida County city of Rome.

The medical drone experiment shows the kind of work coming out of the Nuair project, which state and local authorities are boosting. It also shows the complicated issues around putting this technology into popular use.

Basile said the university approached the alliance a year and a half ago about testing the concept of making medical deliveries with drones, especially during the future state project to replace the elevated section of Interstate 81 with a ground-level community grid. It took a year to get the Federal Aviation Administration’s approval for the tests, he said.

The highway runs next to the university and separates its main campus and hospital from a surgery center. Basile said the hospital is particularly interested in finding a way to make fast medical deliveries from the surgery center on Harrison Street west of the highway to a lab to the east of the highway during the construction work, when vehicular traffic could be slowed.

“They’re not going to want to wait 20 minutes for a tissue sample to get to the lab because the highway is coming down,” he said.

Dr. Robert Corona, CEO of Upstate University Hospital, said the university sees drones as part of an effort to automate the shipment of supplies and specimens, not just during the I-81 project. Currently, the hospital utilizes curriers for such shipments, but drones could do the job more efficiently, he said.

Eventually, the hospital would also like to use robots to transport supplies and specimens within the hospital, limiting the number of humans who have to come in contact with the items, he said.

“We’re looking at drones as aerial robots,” he said.

Basile said the test flights showed that small, unmanned aerial vehicles could make the deliveries, not only from the surgery center to the lab, but to and from multiple locations, he said.

Challenges remain to the use of drones to make such deliveries, however.

For one thing, such deliveries are not very economical. The Nuair team used five people to conduct the test flights. Basile said paying five people to deliver, say, one test kit is more costly than paying a driver to make the delivery.

Second, the FAA currently does not allow blood, tissue samples, used Covid-19 test kits and other biohazardous materials, or controlled substances to be carried by drones because of the risk that the public could be exposed to them in the event of a crash, Basile said.

One potential solution is to equip the drones with a protective container that would prevent the public from being exposed if the drone crashed, he said.

Third, the FAA is still evaluating which drone models will be allowed to make medical or other types of deliveries.

Basile said the agency will likely require that all such drone models come equipped with parachutes that deploy automatically in the event of a mechanical failure.

But even a drone slowly returning to the ground via a parachute could pose a major risk to a vehicle traveling at, say, 60 mph, he said.

As a condition set by the FAA, the drone used during the Nuair team’s test flights was equipped with a parachute and was only flown over I-81 late at night when no traffic was going by.

Basile said the agency also will likely require delivery drones to have six to eight motors so that they can continue to fly even if one or two motors fail. A common type of drone, a “quadcopter” with four motors, cannot fly if even one motor fails, he said.

And then there is the issue of weather. When it’s raining, snowing or windy, drones cannot fly, he said.

“They are susceptible to strong winds and icing,” he said.

Nevertheless, Basile said he thinks the challenges will be worked out and drones used for such deliveries in the future.

“I think they’re certainly going to be used,” he said. “Whether it’s soon depends on what you mean by soon.”

© 2021 Advance Local Media LLC. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.