Thursday, 18 August 2016 11:46

Drones transport microbiological samples without altering their content

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Published in mBiosphere

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Robots help sort patient samples, test clinical specimens, and analyze the results. Now a study shows that robots, in the form of drones, can help move our samples from place to place, with little effect on the analytical outcome.

Drone transport made a news splash when Amazon proposed using the machines for its deliveries, and scientists were quick to pick up on their use for transporting clinical samples to speed delivery for clinical lab analysis. The effect of drone use hadn’t been systematically examined, until Timothy Amukele, working with Sean Zhang, published their report in the Journal of Clinical Microbiology.

Amukele has previously promoted the use of drones for sample transport. His 2015 report showed that blood samples could be transported for chemical, hematological, and coagulation-based assays. Clinical samples experience different forces, especially during takeoff and landing, when transported by drone than by conventional means. “Such movements could have destroyed blood cells or prompted blood to coagulate, and I thought all kinds of blood tests might be affected, but our study shows they weren’t,” Amukele told MedCityNews.

Now the scientific team has shown that drones can effectively transport microbial samples. In addition to experiencing sudden acceleration or deceleration, samples transported by drone may experience changes in temperature or pressure, which might affect the microbial growth rate. To test this, samples (both aerobic and anaerobic) were split into two aliquots; one aliquot was flown by drone for roughly 30 minutes and the other remained stationary. The drone was launched with a hand toss and landed by sliding to a stop on its belly (see video below).

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Side-by-side comparison of drone transported with stationary samples

After drone landing, the team tested the stationary and drone-transported samples to compare potential diagnostic microbiological assays. Samples were measured for time to recovery, colony counts, morphologies, and MALDI-TOF mass spectrometry, and no differences were seen using any of these methods (see right). The flight therefore had no effect on the transported samples.

Drone transport for clinical samples could have a huge impact in rural areas with little access to sophisticated diagnostic machinery or poor transportation infrastructure. The robots are relatively inexpensive (the one used in the report cost under $2000) and simple to fly. Imagine an outbreak in a rural area, and one can see the benefits of a centralized diagnostic lab that can receive samples by drone from the surrounding community. Even in non-outbreak settings, underserved areas are benefitting from drone delivery of medical samples. Thanks to Amukele and his team, we now know for certain that these samples are accurate patient representations.

Drone Transport of Microbes in Blood and Sputum Laboratory Specimens from Medical Drones on Vimeo.

Photo credits: Figures from paper, Video

Julie Wolf

ASM Communications Social Media Specialist Julie Wolf spent her research career focused on medical mycology and infectious disease. Broadly interested in microbiology and scientific communication, she has taught at Long Island University and the community biolab Genspace and has written for the Scientista Foundation and Scholastic’s Science World magazine. Follow her on Twitter for more ASM and Microbiology highlights at @JulieMarieWolf.