Drones, or unmanned aircraft systems, are starting to play a growing role in healthcare delivery in some parts of the world, and while the possibilities are endless, some road—or air—bumps remain here in the US.

There have been some impressive wins here. In late April, the first-ever organ delivered by drone was transplanted into a patient with kidney failure at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore, and the US Department of Transportation has launched an Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Integration Pilot Program to test drone delivery models, including some that involve medical supplies. A preliminary study in Journal of the American Medical Association showed that it is possible to transport and deliver an automated external defibrillator (AED) via drone. And even better news: the drone arrived more than 16 minutes faster than an ambulance, suggesting a greater window of opportunity to save someone experiencing an out-of-hospital cardiac arrest.1

More Than Just Delivering Toilet Paper

It’s all pretty cool, but why is the roll out of drones for medical use taking so long? Much of the hold-up is regulatory in nature, as this industry is in its nascent stage. Until 2016, it was illegal to fly a drone commercially in the US without a waiver, but now drones can fly commercially as long as the remote pilot has his/her eyes on the drone at all times. Commercial drones still can’t fly at night or over people without a waiver, explains Amanda L. Armistead, Senior Vice President of Government Relations - Federal at McGuireWoods Consulting LLC, a Washington, DC-based public affairs firm that is lobbying for a commercial drone policy. As it stands, “You can’t carry goods for compensation or hire and you can’t get a waiver to do so,” she says. “Until regulations are in place, we won’t see full-scale delivery of medical goods by drone in the US.”

There is also a need for remote identity standards. “Right now there is no way to find out who is operating the drone,” Ms. Armistead points out. The Federal Aviation Administration is developing such regulations, but the process is taking a while and was recently delayed again, she says.

“We would like to see more companies do tests for research and development purposes to help educate law makers and the public about the benefits of this technology,” Ms. Armistead says. “It’s not about delivering toilet paper. We are talking about lifesaving goods, including blood, organs, and AEDS.”

Jeff Bezos is Waiting…

The Trump administration recently appointed Michael Chasen, the CEO of PrecisionHawk, a commercial drone company, to oversee the committee that advises the Department of Transportation on drone regulations, which suggests that there may be movement soon.

Google seems to have found a way to circumvent the regulatory standstill and move forward with drone delivery. The search giant essentially received the same certification as commercial airlines for their drone delivery service, Wing.

Jeff Bezos has publicly claimed that Amazon will be using Prime Air to deliver packages by drone in the next few years, and Amazon is not the only company getting in on the game of drones. Zipline, a drone-delivery start-up that delivers medical supplies, including blood, rabies vaccines, and antivenom, to health clinics in Rwanda and Ghana is now worth a reported $1.2B and is planning to expand its reach across Africa, South Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Americas.

Exactly what role drone delivery may play in dermatology is still unclear, but these devices have been used to deliver sunscreen at an Amazon-hosted conference in Palm Springs, CA, and a pooping seagull-like drone dropped sunscreen on kids not wearing any as part of a very innovative Nivea ad campaign.

We may see more of this and we also may see drones deliver other lifesaving meds to our patients in need, including antibiotics for skin infection or wound care supplies. I look forward to seeing how this all plays out.