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Canadian researchers explore drone delivery of medical supplies to remote communities

By Chris Stonor

Canadian researchers are exploring drone delivery of medical supplies and goods to Canada’s remote communities, reports suasnews.com.

Researchers at the University of Calgary, 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 by drone, and to connect these communities to laboratories using such craft.

Dr John Conly, Medical Director of the W21C Research and Innovation Centre at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM) and co-principal investigator of this project, said, “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.”

Conly first 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 back in November 2019.

Dr John Conly

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

Currently, vehicles carry samples from remote areas to labs in Alberta. Rural areas also use priority courier services when necessary. Drones can complement such existing services, and provide access when traditional means do not work. The SNN is eager to be involved in the research as it has three locations in Alberta that are not easy to access.

Ryan Robb, CEO of the Stoney Tribal Administration, said, “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.”

He continued, “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.”

Meanwhile, TransAlta Corporation has come on-board to support the research. Many of its employees work in remote areas, and during a medical emergency, 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, is using the drone to deliver a portable ultrasound unit.

Kirkpatrick commented, “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.”

He continued, “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 trial at the Morley reserve back in June, using SAIT’s unmanned SwissDrones SDO 50 V2 helicopter, which can carry a payload of up to 45 kilograms. The load included PPEs and Covid-19 test kits.

Conly stated, “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.”

He continued, “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, who notes that samples used in the trial are non-infectious and pose no risk to the public, said, “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. Adding, “Whatever the proposed solution, we would work with Transport Canada for regulatory approval.”

The researchers are planning additional trials 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 Calgary to a national and even global initiative as a response to medical emergencies in remote and isolated areas of the world.

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(News Source: https://www.suasnews.com)

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