NUIG drone completes first delivery of essential diabetes meds

NUIG drone
L-R: Prof Derek O’Keeffe, NUI Galway; Steven Flynn, Skytango; Wayne Floyd, Survey Drones Ireland; Mark Daly, Vodafone Ireland. Image: Andrew Downes, Xposure

Drone completed first autonomous, beyond visible line of sight delivery of insulin

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17 September 2019 | 0

NUI Galway (NUIG) has made aviation history with the successful delivery of diabetes prescription medications from Connemara to Inis Mór. Medications and a blood sample were transported via drone in minutes flat as part of its Diabetes Drone project.

Accessing diabetes medication can be a challenge in remote geographic regions, particularly when natural disaster strikes. The drones return flight totalled just 32 minutes; meaning it would allow island residents to access necessary medications, irrespective of weather conditions.

“It is extremely important that we have a way to deliver fridge medications such as insulin to patients in emergency situations which this drone delivery system allows us to do,” said Pauline Forde, pharmacist, Staunton’s Allcare Pharmacy, Galway.

Marion Hernon, a patient with diabetes, living on the Aran Islands, said: “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.” Severe weather conditions, such as storm Emma and Ophelia, emphasised the need for a contingency plan for the delivery of critical medications.

“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,” said project lead, Prof Derek O’Keeffe, professor of medical device technology, NUI Galway and consultant physician, Galway University Hospitals. “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.

Survey Drones Ireland supplied a Wingcopter 178 Heavy Lift for the mission. This model boasts an insulated parcel delivery box for the payload and an all-electric vertical take-off and landing for efficient forward flight once in the air. It can travel up to 100km in less than an hour.

Launched from Connemara Airport, the drone used a combination of software for the pre-flight check list and the flight itself. The beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) mission operated in between commercial flights and was in constant communication with air space regulators thanks to its Vodafone connected Internet of Things (IoT) technology.

It flew a pre-planned flight path using Q Ground Control software. This allowed for the connection of primary cellular communications and backup satellite communications to be displayed. SUA pilots from Survey Drones Ireland and Wingcopter monitored the flight. Skytango managed all checklists pre-launch and recorded the operation’s compliance from an aviation and a medical regulatory standpoint.

“Our IoT network technology ensured the drone was contactable and connectivity thresholds were met and sustained throughout the flight, from ground level in Connemara to 130m across 18kms of water, to landing on Inis Mór,” said Debbie Power, IoT Country Manager, Vodafone Ireland.

“The successful IoT connectivity allowed the flight to adhere to aviation regulatory standards and provides good evidence for further investigation into drone delivery corridor planning, as long-range flights, like this one, can be mapped with our radio frequency network input.”

Several experts were consulted in preparation for the mission; Dr Kevin Johnson, University of Limerick provided insight into drone technology and Dr Spyridoula Maraka, University of Arkansas, outlined the healthcare delivery issues. Novo Nordisk supplied the glucagon and insulin for the mission. Other partners include the Irish Aviation Authority, Skytango, Survey Drones Ireland, Wingcopter, and Vodafone Ireland.

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