You are here

Endocrinologist at Galway University Hospitals leads out on World’s First Diabetes Drone Mission from Irish mainland to Aran Islands

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

Professor Derek O’Keeffe, Consultant Endocrinologist at Galway University Hospitals and Professor of Medical Device Technology at NUI Galway was the project lead for the world’s first autonomous beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS), vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) drone delivery of diabetes prescription medications (insulin, glucagon) and collection of a patient blood sample (HbA1c) between Connemara Airport and Inis Mór, Aran Islands. The Internet of Things (IoT) connected drone delivery was supported by the Irish Aviation Authority, operated in between commercial flights and was in contact with air space regulators at all times, showing the possibility of future deliveries of this kind within planned drone corridors.

The NUI Galway led #DiabetesDrone project was run in partnership with several industry experts and stakeholders including, Skytango, Survey Drones Ireland, Wingcopter, Vodafone Ireland and global healthcare company Novo Nordisk. Dr Kevin Johnson, University of Limerick provided expert insight into state-of-the-art drone technology and Dr Spyridoula Maraka, University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, USA, outlined the health care delivery issues involved in this innovative project. Novo Nordisk, the world’s largest insulin manufacturer, supplied the glucagon and insulin for the mission.

It is crucial that people with diabetes have access to their lifesaving medicine at all times, which is often challenging in remote geographic regions and in times of natural disasters. Recent severe weather events, including storms Emma and Ophelia, demonstrated a clear need to develop the capability to deliver insulin and other critical medications (such as glucagon) in times of crisis.

Prof O’Keeffe 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 #DiabetesDrone project represents another milestone in the use of drones to improve patient care.”

The drone supplied by Survey Drones Ireland was a Wingcopter 178 Heavy Lift, with insulated parcel delivery box for the payload, an all-electric vertical take-off and landing drone that transitions into a very efficient forward flight once up in the air. It reaches destinations of up to 100 km distance in less than an hour. “We at Wingcopter are excited to support Survey Drones Ireland in the implementation of BVLOS missions with our technology and experiences from projects around the world”, states Ansgar Kadura, Chief Operating Officer at Wingcopter GmbH.

The drone was launched from Connemara Airport using a combination of software - one for the pre-flight check list and one for the mission flight. The drone was connected via Vodafone Ireland’s IoT network and it flew a pre-planned flight path using Q Ground Control software. This software allowed the connection of the primary cellular communications and backup satellite communications to be displayed, allowing the 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. The Skytango software platform was used to manage checklists from all parties pre-launch and record the compliance of the operation from both an aviation and a medical regulatory standpoint, as well as inform stakeholders of the launch in realtime.

According to Steve Flynn, Founder and CEO of Skytango: “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, IoT Country Manager, Vodafone Ireland, said: “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, from ground level in Connemara to 130 metres across 18 kms of water, to landing on Inis Mór. The total flight distance covered on the first leg was 21.7 km, which included entering the correct air traffic sequence at both airports during take-off and landing. The return leg was slightly shorter, covering a total distance of 21.6 km. Both flights were completed on a single set of batteries and totalled just 32 minutes of flight time. 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.”

Owen Treacy, Country Manager, Novo Nordisk Ireland, said: “For almost 100 years, Novo Nordisk has been bringing innovative solutions for people living with diabetes and other chronic diseases. We are delighted to support this world’s first initiative, as a proof of concept, which offers the potential to deliver life-saving medications for those patients’ dependent on insulin, in situations where normal delivery channels are disrupted.”

As a patient focused pharmaceutical company, Novo Nordisk understands the importance of maintaining continuity of medical supplies for patients all over Ireland. Whether this is due to inclement weather or other matters outside of our control, Novo Nordisk is committed to investigating all potential solutions to ensure patients have access to their recommended medicines.”

Dr Marion Broderick, General Practitioner on the Aran Islands, said: “Drone delivery helps connectivity for island communities and has endless possibilities.”

Marion Hernon, a patient with Diabetes 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.”

Pauline Forde, a pharmacist in Staunton’s Pharmacy, Galway, commented: “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.”

For more information about the project, visit: and on Twitter @DiabetesDrone #DiabetesDrone

Photo 300medical drone.jpg:

Professor Derek O’Keeffe, Galway University Hospitals and NUI Galway and the world’s first diabetes drone. The drone completed the first autonomous, beyond visible line of sight drone delivery of insulin, connected by Vodafone IoT, from Connemara Airport to Inis Mór on the Aran Islands. The diabetes drone was given special research permission from the Irish Aviation Authority to show the possibility of future deliveries of this kind within planned drone corridors. Photo: Andrew Downes, Xposure

The article above is specific to the following Saolta hospitals:: 
University Hospital Galway (UHG)