University of Cincinnati researchers invent new telehealth drone

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Inventors at the University of Cincinnati announced this past week that they had developed a semi-autonomous drone prototype to dispatch medicine or supplies to people’s homes.

The drone, which is still in development, has cameras and a display screen to allow patients to communicate with healthcare professionals from within their own homes.

“When the COVID-19 pandemic began, we saw a need for telehealth care delivery drones to provide healthcare in the home and in locations where access to care is not readily available,” said Debi Sampsel, director of telehealth at UC’s College of Nursing, in a press release.

The coronavirus has accelerated the pace of virtual care innovation, but medication delivery via drone is still a fairly novel prospect.

Still, the multidisciplinary team at UC says they hope the drone can bridge some of the digital divide that has been both highlighted and exacerbated by the pandemic crisis.

Manish Kumar, UC professor of mechanical engineering, and his engineering students began working with Sampsel seven years ago to apply technology to accessibility issues. As Sampsel and another UC professor, Tamilyn Bakas, were exploring the feasibility of using telehealth robots for participants living independently, Sampsel said the logistics involved inspired her to think about the ways telehealth delivery could be improved.

“A big advantage of drones is their ability to navigate using satellite or even cellular communications,” said Kumar.

In addition to the cameras and the display screen, the semi-autonomous drone prototype carries a waterproof box that can deliver medical supplies or collect self-administered lab tests.

Researchers noted the potential long-term capabilities of telehealth drones, including chronic disease management and environmental quality assessments.

“We can perform all kinds of functions: chronic disease management, post-operative care monitoring, health coaching and consultations,” said Sampsel. “And in the healthcare arena, there is no age limit. Telehealth services are useful from birth to death.”

COVID-19 has spotlighted the ways that virtual care can be used to keep patients, and clinicians, safe during a highly contagious pandemic.

Of course, synchronous one-on-one video interactions have become commonplace during the crisis. But researchers are also exploring the possibility of relying on robots – such as the doglike quadrupeds developed by Boston Dynamics – for care.

A recent study found that the majority of participants in an online survey believed a robotic system would be useful for a variety of healthcare tasks, including facilitating telehealth interviews, acquiring vital signs and turning a patient in bed.

“Patients with limited access to transportation may benefit from telehealth sessions and delivery, aiding in reducing health disparities,” said Victoria Wangia-Anderson, a professor of health informatics in UC’s College of Allied Health Sciences.