By Jamaal R. Jones
Medical drones are not commonplace in the healthcare industry, but we can expect to see their widespread use in years to come. In fact, the government is drafting various laws to protect the rights of individuals as the use of drones is rising steadily. Drones come in various shapes, sizes, and functions. Medical drones are one type, but like others the possibility for healthcare entrepreneurs to turn these medical drones into a business is ripe if they can stay within the confines of applicable law.
What is a drone and how can it be used?
Drones or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) can track emergency mobile communications and use its GPS to navigate to the location where the incident is occurring. Drone pilots can (1) observe via an integrated camera; (2) communicate; and (3)provide medical support to victims and/or those who are rendering aid to the victim. As previously mentioned, it is not farfetched for medical drones to have certain life-sustaining apparatus, instruments, and medical supplies attached to it in a “medical toolkit”. These medical drone toolkits can be dispatched to remote ski-locations to aid down skiers, off-shore oil rigs, ships, trapped miners, or an island that is difficult to reach by boat. The goal is to stabilize victims until more advanced medical personnel and support arrives to transition the patient to a hospital.
From an economic standpoint, operating Medical drones can be far more cost effective that other means of delivering medical care that is currently in use. Additionally, the speed with which medical care may be provided to a patient will increase because Medical drones aren’t limited by pedestrian or automobile traffic, bodies or water or other man-made or natural formations, such as Mountains. However, navigating the drone by GPS may be problematic because of the inability to detect these formations.
Some healthcare entrepreneurs that get into the medical drone business might choose not to sell the drone to hospitals, instead they will lease the drones, and enter into exclusive agreements where any maintenance on the drone has be performed by the owner/supplier. The cost to build a drone will vary based on its size and capabilities, but the average drone costs roughly $10,000, carries a 5 lb. payload and can fly for approximately 30-60 minutes within a 20-60 mile range. In addition to the GPS, medical drones can be manually operated and requires very little room to land and can even drop its payload from a low hover. Rural areas can greatly benefit from these types of services since access to emergency medical care is difficult.
Currently, the main shortcoming with Medical drones is the type of payload that it is permitted to carry. Due to existing federal and state laws, drones won’t be able to carry prescription drugs for the foreseeable future. That is reasonable given the fact that if a drone carrying prescription drugs (i.e. Medical marijuana, oxycotin, Percocet, etc.) falls – no pun intended – into the wrong hands then the results can be catastrophic to the intended recipient’s health and the unintended beneficiary’s health. For now, medical drones will most likely be limited to carrying a payload with only over-the-counter medical supplies and some durable medical equipment, such as gauze, cold medicine, splints, neck collars, etc. As security safeguards advance for the payloads that are carried by medical drones I expect to see the types of supplies that they carry to expand to include prescription drugs, assuming that amendments to existing healthcare laws are made, which would permit this type of activity.
The Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) requires a special permit to fly a drone for commercial purposes. Anyone wishing to operate a drone for purposes other than recreational purposes must obtain a grant of exemption issued under Section 333. Medical drone operators should obtain one of these Section 333 exemptions so that they can lease their drones out to companies or hospitals that cannot operate their own until they obtain their own Section 333 exemption. The company would have to apply for and obtain a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (“COA”) to fly in a particular block of airspace.
An online registration system has been created for drones. Every operator with a drone that weighs more than half a pound up to 55 pounds (including any payload) must register their drone with the FAA, pay a $5 fee and affix a tail number to the drone. Registration must be renewed every three years. When registering online, each owner must provide his name, address, and email address. Only after proper registration will an owner receive a Certificate of Aircraft Registration/Proof of Ownership that will generate a unique identifier for the registered drone owner. The FAA prohibits all drones from flying higher than 400 feet or within 5 miles of an airport.
The FAA is the federal governing body that has the authority to grand special drone exemptions when used for medical purposes. The FAA prohibits drone flights over people and when it is beyond the sight of the drone’s operator.
The FAA released a Fact Sheet that outlined the administration’s dominion over navigable airspace, flight management and efficiency, air traffic control, aviation safety, the regulation of aircraft noise at its source and any types of aircrafts within it. The fact sheet explicitly prohibits states from interfering with the FAA’s authority over the skies. According to the FAA, 45 states considered some sort of drone law in 2015.
These prohibitions appear to keep medical drones grounded before they even had a chance to take off, but these prohibitions are seen by many an attempt by the government to promote safety and responsibility. It is likely that the FAA will carve out exceptions for drones used for commercial purposes, such as medical drones. For example, registration numbers can be input into a national registry so that in the event of a collision, authorities can trace the wreckage back to the operator.
Because the FAA was given its authority by Congress, the agency said, many local or state drone rules would not stand up to a legal challenge. The December 17th FAA fact sheet on federal laws pre-empts local rules. Instead, these states are enacting regulations regarding the enforcement of the FAA rules.
An estimated 1.6 million drones were sold in the United States in 2015. Due to the rise in popularity, the research and development that goes into medical drone design is ramping up and we’ll see drones that are capable of flying higher, travel further, while reaching higher speeds. Operators should remember the following rules when operating drones: (1) fly below 400 feet altitude; (2) maintain visual contact with your drone at all times; (3) never fly near manned aircrafts or near airports; and (4) never fly over groups of people, stadiums, or sporting events without permission. There’s still a long way to go before medical drones become commonplace, but if you get into the business early you stand to make steep profits.