Transporting human tissue by drone above Antwerp – a first


Speed is vital in the medical field, especially when transporting medication, medical materials, and blood and other samples. In that regard, an airborne drone far outperforms a road ambulance, particularly in urban areas.

For the first time in Europe, human tissue has been transported between two hospitals, from the ZNA Middelheim to a laboratory at GZA Hospitals campus Sint-Augustinus in Antwerp. The drone completed the 1.2 km route through the air in just 4 minutes. It took 1 minute each time for take-off and landing and 2 minutes to complete the actual flight at 36 km/h. Once the test phase has concluded, the expectation is that drone flights will take place at a speed of 60 km/h. The drone flew at an altitude of 80 metres and for added safety, most of its journey took place over green and sparsely populated areas.

In addition to being faster, drones are more reliable, environmentally friendly and cheaper than road transport. In the air, there are no traffic jams or traffic lights and the drones themselves are powered by batteries or hydrogen. The drone itself is a complex combination of technologies and it includes quite a few security safeguards. These include a parachute system for the drone itself and an emergency plan in coordination with the emergency services on the ground.

Helicus is the first drone operator in Europe to be licensed by aviation authorities to fly a drone over densely populated urban areas beyond visual line of sight, i.e. without direct visual contact.

Technological advances and more detailed legislation are expected to broaden the range of medical applications for which drones can be used in the future.