Belgium invests in medical transport with drones
From the second part of 2019, five companies will be carrying out drone test flights for the transport of medical packages between hospitals in Antwerp. The test flights are part of MEDRONA, a project with a financing of 4 million euro, that is supported by the federal government.
Blood samples in the air
Last year, Federal Minister of Transport, Alexander De Croo (Open Vld), and Minister of Communication, François Bellot (MR), launched Smart Mobility Belgium (SMB), a fund to improve mobility through digital innovation. A total of 137 projects applied. MEDRONA was one of the 15 projects proposals selected.
The initiators, five partners including air traffic controller, Belgocontrol, and the Antwerp start-up, Helicus, want to develop a system to transport medical parcels reliably, ecologically and efficiently between hospitals. These include, for example, human tissue, blood and urine samples or pharmacy preparations.
Anticipating what is to come
“This service will enable hospitals to continue to offer their patients high-quality services as the roads become increasingly congested”, says Mikael Shamin, coordinator of the overall project Helicus Aero. “Being stuck in traffic jams is no longer an option for urgent medical transport.”
“The idea for transport with drones comes from the doctors themselves”, explains Mikael Shamin. “In the future, hospitals will work more within a network. Not every hospital will have its own pharmacy or lab anymore. A sample of a patient will then have to be examined in a lab of another hospital. Doctors want to anticipate this.”
Transport will play a very important role in this. For the doctors it is difficult to plan if there is no reliable, punctual transport. With a drone it is easier. The distance is shorter, it can be done faster because there are no traffic lights and there is no traffic jam.
The drones fly bellow a height of 150 meters. “They can carry four to five kilos and fly autonomously. From a command centre somewhere in the centre of Antwerp, we are the operator. If something goes wrong, a pilot can intervene in that centre. The drones land on a piece of roof that has been cleared.”
Shamin also clarifies that the drones will never transport organs for a donation. “These distances are too long and an accompanying doctor should always be present during such a transport.”
Helicus’ research will enter the second phase with test flights, in which the specific flight corridors between hospitals are further investigated. These test flights will take place indoors. It is not yet possible to tell which hospitals are participating, but if all goes well, the first drones with medical equipment will fly over Antwerp in 2020.