Using Drones and Robots to Improve Health Care

By: Robert J. Corona DO, MBA, CEO, Upstate University Hospital

For several years we have been exploring the use of robots and drones in delivering health care. We created a new department, Autonomous Machines, to focus on this vision and to explore the potential. The use of drones and robots for critical deliveries relieves skilled personnel from chasing supplies or spending time on a task that takes them from the patient’s bedside.

The recent pandemic enlightened everyone in healthcare to the vulnerabilities that these technologies can address, including:

• providing support to address staffing challenges, 

• supporting a robust and resilient supply chain,

• minimizing in-person contact, 

• creating convenience for patients.

Internationally, drones have been used to deliver medical products to people who live in remote areas or where doctors are scarce. Across the U.S., drones are being used — mostly still in trial situations — to model how medical supplies could be distributed safely and securely to people who are in remote settings, or to save time over traditional delivery.

While the numbers would need to be calculated at scale, drone delivery for medicine and lab work is proving to be potentially faster and less costly than drivers for certain applications. The movement of material is currently a very labor-intensive and costly operation, and our hospital has a lot of situations where supplies must be in the right place at the right time. For the delivery of lab samples, we currently use a pneumatic tube system or a car courier, both of which have limitations: the tubes have a set footprint and the drivers have multiple delivery priorities. Drones have the potential to get critical samples to an offsite lab directly, within minutes.

For patients and the public there are additional advantages to develop drone applications. For example, future “hospital at home” patients can have drones deliver needed supplies. For patients who are in quarantine or contagious, drones can deliver medications without face-to-face contact or a trip to the pharmacy. For a patient who has transportation issues or limited mobility, a drone can bring medicine or supplies. For a person suffering a heart attack, a drone can deliver an AED to a bystander before the ambulance arrives.

Within our hospital, our use of new robots has become official and is happening now. We have invested in a fleet of 14 TUGs, an autonomous mobile hauling robot designed specifically for hospitals.

With the current staffing shortage that is likely to last for several years, these robots will allow our staff to work at the top of their skill set as the TUGs take over some of the more routine tasks.

Hospitals across the country are turning to robots to help with staff and nursing shortages and the medical robot market is projected to grow into a $43 billion industry in the next five years. Currently, 37 VA Hospitals use the same TUGs as we do, as does Stanford Hospital and University of California San Francisco Medical Center.

Beginning with the transport of critical drugs from our pharmacy within the hospital to our Upstate Cancer Center, we plan to use the new fleet to also transport medical supplies, drugs, linen, meals, and, potentially, clinical equipment.

The TUG robot is about four feet high and uses lidar, laser, sonar, and infrared sensors to navigate. It can get on and off an elevator. When it arrives at its destination it can let itself in. And each of its seven drawers can only be unlocked at the destination it was programmed for and by the person receiving the delivery.

As a level 1 trauma center, teaching hospital, and research center serving Central New York, Upstate serves a diverse population in both rural and urban settings. Developing more uses of technologies — to use within the hospital and outside it — has great potential, especially to reach patients who are traditionally underserved. We are dedicated to building a platform so that we are better prepared for future events, as well as for the future of healthcare.