Oct. 23, 2020

Researchers investigate drone delivery of medical supplies to remote communities during pandemic

UCalgary, SAIT, AHS, and Alberta Precision Laboratories partner with the Stoney Nakoda Nations
Drones may provide a complimentary essential service to deliver medical supplies during the pandemic to isolated communities.
Researchers investigate drone delivery of medical supplies to remote communities during pandemic Leah Hennel, Alberta Health Services

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), commonly referred to as drones, may prove to be a valuable tool in the battle against pandemics like COVID-19. Researchers at the University of Calgary, the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT), Alberta Health Services (AHS), and Alberta Precision Laboratories (APL) are partnering with the Stoney Nakoda Nations (SNN) to deliver medical equipment and test kits for COVID-19 to remote areas, and to connect these communities to laboratories more quickly using these remotely piloted aircraft.

“We know that testing for COVID-19 is one of our most effective tools against its spread. Many remote communities in Canada do not have easy access to testing centres and medical supplies to support rapid testing and containment. Drones can help us respond to that need,” says Dr. John Conly, MD, medical director of the W21C Research and Innovation Centre at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM) and co-principal investigator on the project.

By chance, Conly met Wade Hawkins, the lead researcher at SAIT’s Centre for Innovation and Research in Unmanned Systems (CIRUS), during a lunch break at a medical conference in November 2019. Together they dreamed up the idea of drone delivery of medical supplies to remote sites across Alberta. The pandemic pressed their idea into immediate action.

“In many areas of Canada, drones must be guided and monitored with the assistance of line of sight,” says Hawkins, co-principal investigator on the project. “We hope to move beyond visual line of sight and fly from a lab or health centre directly to a remote community.”

Currently, ground transportation via APL, DynaLIFE or a third-party service carries samples from remote areas to labs in Alberta. Rural areas also use “hot shot” priority courier services when necessary to pick up samples. Drones could complement those existing full services, and provide access when traditional means will not work. The SNN was eager to be involved in the research as it has three locations in Alberta, and not all points are easy to access.

“Our reserve in Morley has multiple access points; however, our satellite reserves in Eden Valley and Big Horn are remote and a delivery system using drones could play a critical role in the health and safety of our communities,” says Ryan Robb, CEO of the Stoney Tribal Administration. “Like many remote Canadian communities, weather can play a key role, for example depending on the time of the year, ice roads and floods can create access barriers.”

TransAlta Corporation came on board to support the research. Many TransAlta employees work in remote areas, and in an emergency medical situation, help via a drone could play a critical role in survival until first responders arrive. Dr. Andrew Kirkpatrick, MD, a trauma surgeon at the Foothills Medical Centre and professor at the CSM, has used the drone to deliver a portable ultrasound unit and is investigating its potential for further applications.

“With this device, and access to a smartphone, with connectivity, a person can be guided remotely by an expert medical professional to perform an ultrasound on themselves or to have someone at the scene perform it on them,” says Kirkpatrick. “We’ve confirmed this system can be used to check for evidence of COVID-19 in the lungs, and I can see it being utilized for many other medical emergencies, from diagnosing broken bones to ruptured spleens.”

The researchers conducted a successful test run at the Morley reserve on June 25 using SAIT’s unmanned SwissDrones SDO 50 V2 helicopter, which can carry a payload of up to 45 kilograms. The load included personal protective equipment and COVID-19 test kits.

“We were able to confirm test kits for COVID-19 can be delivered to a remote area, and the samples can survive the return to a lab with no degrading of the specimen,” says Conly. “This could open many doors for us to reach remote and isolated locations for all medical emergencies, including the current pandemic.”

Dr. Byron Berenger, MD, medical microbiologist with APL, notes that samples used in the trial are non-infectious and pose no risk to the public.

“To transport specimens from patients in the future, we will need to look at options for securely transporting them; such measures are currently taken for road and air transportation of samples,” Berenger says. “Whatever the proposed solution, we would work with Transport Canada for regulatory approval.”

Researchers are planning additional trial runs in the coming weeks at the SNN’s Eden Valley and Big Horn reserves. If drone delivery proves effective, Conly says the project could grow from a Calgary initiative to a tool used nationally and even globally to respond to medical emergencies in remote and isolated areas.

In addition to TransAlta Corporation, this research is supported by an anonymous donor and the Nickle Family Foundation.

Community support fuels important research and education priorities within the Cumming School of Medicine, including our response to COVID-19 and the core infrastructure that supports this work. Giving to the CSM Impact Fund can help minimize the consequences of the pandemic in our community and beyond.

John Conly is a professor in the departments of Medicine, Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, and Microbiology, Immunology and Infectious Diseases and member of O’Brien Institute for Public Health, and the Snyder Institute for Chronic Diseases at the CSM. He is the medical director of the W21C Research and Innovation Centre.

Wade Hawkins is principal investigator at SAIT’s Centre for Innovation and Research in Unmanned Systems (funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada) and a geographic information systems instructor.

Andrew Kirkpatrick is a professor in the departments of Surgery and Critical Care Medicine at the CSM and a trauma surgeon at the Foothills Medical Centre, Director of the TeleMentored Ultrasound Supported Medical Interventions (TMUSMI) Research Group, and a major in the Canadian Forces Medical Services.

Byron Berenger is a clinical assistant professor in the department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at the CSM and a medical microbiologist with Alberta Precision Laboratories.