Lab-on-a-drone: Toward pinpoint deployment of smartphone-enabled nucleic acid-based diagnostics for mobile health care

Abstract

We introduce a portable biochemical analysis platform for rapid field deployment of nucleic acid-based diagnostics using consumer-class quadcopter drones. This approach exploits the ability to isothermally perform the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) with a single heater, enabling the system to be operated using standard 5 V USB sources that power mobile devices (via battery, solar, or hand crank action). Time-resolved fluorescence detection and quantification is achieved using a smartphone camera and integrated image analysis app. Standard sample preparation is enabled by leveraging the drone’s motors as centrifuges via 3D printed snap-on attachments. These advancements make it possible to build a complete DNA/RNA analysis system at a cost of ∼$50 ($US). Our instrument is rugged and versatile, enabling pinpoint deployment of sophisticated diagnostics to distributed field sites. This capability is demonstrated by successful in-flight replication of Staphylococcus aureus and λ-phage DNA targets in under 20 min. The ability to perform rapid in-flight assays with smartphone connectivity eliminates delays between sample collection and analysis so that test results can be delivered in minutes, suggesting new possibilities for drone-based systems to function in broader and more sophisticated roles beyond cargo transport and imaging.

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