By Paddy Henry
NUI Galway and associated partners made history last week, with the completion of the first autonomous Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS), Vodafone-connected Vertical Take Off and Landing (VTOL) drone delivery of prescription medication and collection of patient blood sample for diabetes care
Supported by the Irish Aviation Authority, who gave the project special dispensation, the drone delivered diabetes prescription medications, such as insulin and glucagon, from Connemara Airport to Inís Mór.
The operation was conducted in between commercial flights and was in contact with aerospace regulators at all times, paving the way for future deliveries of this type on similar flight paths.
The flight from Connemara to Inis Mór covered a distance of 21.7km over and 21.6 km back. The drone spent a total of 32 minutes in the air between the two journeys.
The operation was conducted with the help of NUI Galway’s #DiabetesDrone project and garnered the support of multiple industry leaders, such as Skytango, Survey Drones Ireland, Wingcopte and Vodafone.
Numerous healthcare companies and Universities, such as Noro Nordish, the world’s leading supplier of insulin, also got involved in the ground-breaking project, while academic experts such as Professor Derek O’Keeffe of NUI Galway, who led the project, Doctor Kevin Johnson of the University of Limerick and Doctor Spyridoula Maraka from the University of Arkansas, also assisted.
Professor O’Keeffe lauded the innovation as a huge step forward in helping people in remote areas access crucial medicine, stating, “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 #DiabetesDrone project represents another milestone in the use of drones to improve patient care”.
The delivery drone, a Wingcopter 178 Heavy Lift, with an insulated parcel delivery box, was supplied by Survey Drones Ireland and can cover 100 kilometres in less than an hour.
A combination of different software programmes were used at Connemara airport in order to ensure a successful outcome to the mission. Skytango, a drone operations management platform, which helps manage the Health & Safety aspects of drone operations across a range of industries, took charge of the pre-flight operations, while Vodafone Ireland’s Internet of Things (IoT) network managed the mission flight.
The drone’s pre-flight path was managed using Q Ground Control software. This allowed the connection of the primary cellular communications and backup satellite communications to be displayed, allowing the Small Unmanned Aircraft (SUA) pilots on both sites to track the progress of the aircraft. This is very important, as is the need to implement the BVLOS emergency procedures. Once airborne, the whole flight was monitored by the SUA Pilots from Survey Drones Ireland and Wingcopter.
Skytango CEO, Steve Flynn, spoke of the importance of using drones for the benefit of the public, announcing, “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 launch team had a live FPV (first-person view) camera feed from the aircraft, to ensure a visual from the drone, once it flew beyond visual line of sight, for safety. The second team on Inis Mór, Aran Islands, had a second ground control station with satellite telecoms so they could monitor the location of the drone to the destination, at the local airfield.
Debbie Power, Internet of Things Country Manager at Vodafone Ireland, hailed the successful operation as an example of the importance of using modern innovation as a means of connecting people from even the most remote of locations, declaring, “Vodafone Ireland are delighted to partner with NUI Galway and other experts for this world-first BVLOS diabetes drone mission. At Vodafone, we are committed to connecting for a better future and in using our technology to improve people’s lives, regardless of where they live. Our IoT network technology ensured the drone was contactable and connectivity thresholds were met and sustained throughout the flight”.
The rewards of this historic breakthrough will be reaped most by those living on remote, outlying islands, such as Inís Mór. Marion Hernon, a patient with diabetes and resident of Inís Mór, spoke of the impact a drone service would have for similar patients stating, “Insulin is essential for my survival and having a diabetes drone service in an emergency situation would ensure this survival while living on an offshore island.”
Doctors on the island have also praised the technological developments in connecting island communities, with local GP, Doctor Marion Broderick describing the possibilities as ‘’endless’’.