A cancer patient is operated on and the surgeon removes tumor tissue. The tissue sample must be examined by a pathologist while the anesthesia is still in effect. The problem: Most hospitals no longer have their own pathology department. The tissue must therefore be transported to another clinic in the fastest way. Often the transport route by road is too long. In this case, the samples are only on hand for assessment after the operation – and the risk of needing a new operation increases. Drones can provide a remedy in the future. The Center of Applied Aeronautical Research (ZAL) recently launched a groundbreaking test flight in Hamburg as part of the Medifly research project.
Six ambitious flights
The route on 5 February 2020 was ambitious. A drone flew a total of six times between the army hospital in Wandsbek-Gartenstadt and the Marienkrankenhaus hospital in Hohenfelde, about five kilometers away as the crow flies. And this over urban areas – where police or rescue helicopters may be expected at any time – and within the control zone of Hamburg Airport.
Therefore, the demands on drone operations in terms of security were more stringent. It had to be proven in advance that the automated flights above populated areas and busy roads would be secure at all times. Planning and coordination, particularly with the state aeronautical authority and the air traffic control center (DFS) at Hamburg Airport, took several months.
Clearance for intensive testing
There were consistently positive results: all the test flights were successfully completed. The drones were in operation for ten minutes at a time – and thus significantly faster than an ambulance, which in an emergency would transport the tissue samples through the city center, driving with blue lights flashing. The knowledge gained is now the basis for a trial operation lasting several months, during which further factors for economic operation are to be investigated.
The drone took off six times for the five-kilometer flight between the army hospital in Wandsbek-Gartenstadt and the Marienkrankenhaus hospital in Hohenfelde – safely and reliably.
A joint project
Medifly is a joint project sponsored by the German Federal Ministry of Transport. To this end, the Center of Applied Aeronautical Research (ZAL), FlyNex, GLVI Gesellschaft für Luftverkehrsinformatik GmbH and Lufthansa Technik AG have joined forces. The Hamburg State Agency for Economy, Transport and Innovation and the two hospitals involved are also on board as associated partners.
The Hanseatic city is a pioneer in the field of drones; in 2018, it was welcomed as one of the first cities in the Urban Air Mobility (UAM) initiative of the European Innovation Partnership on Smart Cities (EIP-SCC), supported by the European Commission. Hamburg is thus an official model region for the development of civil applications of drone and other urban air traffic technologies.