A team of scientists from Johns Hopkins University have set a rather unique record – they've used a fixed-wing drone to fly medical samples farther than any drone has ever done before. The Latitude Engineering HQ-40 aircraft transported human blood samples across 161 miles (259 km) of Arizona desert.

A total of 84 samples were collected in pairs at the University of Arizona in Tucson, then driven 76 miles (122 km) to a remote airfield. One sample from each pair was then loaded into a temperature-controlled payload system in the drone, which took off and flew for three hours before landing back at the same airstrip.

The other samples from each pair, the ones that didn't go in the drone, were instead put in a car at the airfield with an active cooling system which kept them at a target temperature. While the flown samples had an average temperature of 24.8°C (76.6°F), the non-flown samples stayed at an average of 27.3°C (81.1°F).

After the flight, all of the samples were driven 62 miles (100 km) to the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Arizona. There, they were tested for 17 of the 19 most common chemistry and hematology tests. Both the flown and non-flown samples showed similar results for red blood cell, white blood cell and platelet counts and sodium levels, among other things. There were small differences in their glucose and potassium levels, due to the non-flown samples being kept at a slightly warmer temperature.

The exercise backed up previous research, which indicated that drone flight doesn't adversely affect biological samples.

"Drones can operate where there are no roads, and overcome conditions that disable wheeled vehicles, traffic and other logistical inefficiencies that are the enemy of improved, timely patient diagnoses and care," says Dr. Timothy Amukele, who led the study along with Jeff Street. "Getting diagnostic results far more quickly under difficult conditions will almost certainly improve care and save more lives."

A paper on the research was recently published in the American Journal of Clinical Pathology.

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