How far off are drones in the delivery of rural care?
- A Silicon Valley startup called Matternet is pioneering a pilot program that uses drones to connect rural care providers with major hospitals in Bhutan. Currently, the country has 31 hospitals, 178 basic care clinics and 654 outreach clinics serving a population of 700,000. The program has the potential to impact the model of rural care delivery globally.
- Matternet uses small quadcopters to carry 4-pound loads between pre-designated stations no more than 12 1/2 miles apart. Each drone costs between $2,000 and $5,000.
- Although Bhutan's conditions are poor for small drone flight, Matternet said that they haven't had any incidents yet—although the drones have not been tested in heavy rains.
This has the potential to become a huge market in the healthcare industry. If the Matternet pilot is able to make care delivery by drone conceivable both practically and financially, which it seems likely that it will do, it's hard not to wonder what implications this could have for rural care in the United States. Amazon is already exploring the use of drones to deliver packages to customers; The company is currently pushing the federal government to create regulations for unmanned aerial vehicles that would make it possible for Amazon to test small commercial drones.
If Amazon thinks it can use drones to deliver purchases to consumers in 30 minutes or less, the potential for drone use in the healthcare landscape looks less pie-in-the-sky. Drones could conceivably be used to deliver needed prescriptions to consumers in rural areas. And theoretically, home and remote care through drone use could benefit from the increased push for regulations easing the path for telemedicine.
"Essentially, we see a market of civil government and commercial in terms $5.4 billion over the next decade," said aerospace industry analyst Phil Finnegan.