Researchers at NUI Galway, Ireland, have completed the world’s first BVLOS delivery of prescription medication and blood samples for diabetes care.
NUI Galway worked with partners including telecoms giant Vodafone and healthcare company Novo Nordisk to conduct the flight between Connemara Airport and Inis Mór, on the Aran Islands.
The University of Limerick’s Dr Kevin Johnson provided insight into drone technology and Dr Spyridoula Maraka from the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences consulted on the health care delivery issues that come with drone transportation.
The Diabetes Drone
People living with diabetes need access to insulin at all times. But this access can be difficult in remote areas and in times of natural disasters. The NUI Galway team points to recent storms Emma and Ophelia, which highlight the need to develop autonomous delivery capabilities to transport insulin and other critical medications in times of crisis.
Project lead, Professor Derek O’Keeffe, Professor of Medical Device Technology, NUI Galway and Consultant Physician, Galway University Hospitals, said, “Climate change means that these types of severe weather events are becoming more prevalent. Individuals and communities in rural locations can become isolated for days after a severe weather event and an emergency may arise where patients can run out of their medicine.
“Therefore, it is incumbent on us to develop a solution for these emergencies, which addresses the clinical, technical and regulatory issues before a sentinel event occurs. To date medical drones have demonstrated success, for example in delivering blood, defibrillators and human organs for transplant. This Diabetes Drone project represents another milestone in the use of drones to improve patient care.”
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Insulated insulin, from above
The project used a Wingcopter 178 Heavy Lift, an electric VTOL drone that transitions into more efficient forward flight after take-off.
The drone was launched from Connemara Airport and was connected throughout the flight using Vodafone Ireland’s IoT connectivity. It flew a pre-planned flight path and was connected to pilots on both sides of the route, who were able to track the mission’s progress.
Drone workflow specialists Skytango managed the pre-flight checklists from all parties kept on top of operational compliance. Steve Flynn, Founder and CEO of Skytango said, “It is imperative that we win the hearts and minds of the communities we fly over when it comes to drone operations and connecting stakeholders and tracking compliance is a step toward that.”
The total flight covered a distance of 43.3km. The first leg was 21.7 km and the drone took a slightly shorter route back, covering 21.6 km. Both flights were completed on a single set of batteries and the total flight time was 32 minutes.
The flight – both in terms of its practical underpinning and the underlying connectivity challenges scaled – serves as further evidence of drones being effective tools for long-distance BVLOS deliveries.
The test has once again proven that drones can easily reach remote communities and carry vital supplies while being integrated into the airspace alongside manned aircraft.