Belgian hospitals have started testing a drone to save time by delivering human tissue samples across city centers, between patients on the operating table and medical labs, a first in Europe.
On Tuesday, a drone flown by a private contractor took off from an Antwerp building belonging to the ZNA hospital group and flew 800 meters to land on the roof of the GZA group’s Sint Augustus site.
Underneath the quadrocopter was a sterile bottle containing human tissue samples to be tested for cancer cells. The first test flight was followed by four more.
The private company Helicus is the only company in Europe that has received a license to operate unmanned aerial vehicles for medical purposes, over cities and with a remote-controlled pilot out of sight.
The drone itself is manufactured by Belgian company SABCA, and Helicus hopes to have developed commercial operations with regular flights by 2024.
Testing is underway, but the European Union is expected to enact new rules next year that could allow medical flights across the 27-strong block.
Michael Shamim, CEO of Helicus, told AFP that hospitals are saving costs by centralizing testing labs – but then locating them farther from patients.
“You need a fast logistics system. And that’s where the drones come in,” he said.
Drones are unaffected by traffic delays and road closures, so their direct routes between hospital facilities are often faster but also more predictable.
The two large Antwerp hospital groups ZNA and GZA process 1,200 tissue samples taken during operations every year, which often have to be analyzed quickly in order to decide on the course of the operation.
Currently, samples are taken down the street to the city’s four labs, sometimes by taxi.
“When removing a tumor, the surgeon tries to protect the surrounding tissue as much as possible,” says pathologist Sabine Declercq.
“But to make sure the tumor has been completely removed, samples are sent to the lab during the procedure and the results have to be back within 30 minutes.”
For now, only samples for analysis, like human tissue and urine, are transported by drones, but Helicus hopes to one day bring blood transfusions and donated organs directly to patients.
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