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Australia’s NT looking to drones to deliver medical supplies to remote communities

The Northern Territory government is trialling custom-made, state-of-the-art medical drones to deliver potentially life-saving medicines. The project will explore the challenges of using drone technology to deliver health services in the Northern Territory, such as procuring airframes that can manage vast distances and adapting technology to withstand hot, humid and monsoonal climates. The project will also involve developing a drone test flight centre in the Northern Territory.

With a flying range of 250 km, the drones have the potential to shorten the delivery of time-critical medical items to hard-to-reach and seasonally inaccessible remote communities. The initiative can go a long in helping save lives and reducing the costs of delivery.  The project will also open the way ay for future delivery of critical items such as cold-storage vaccines (for COVID-19) in regional and remote communities.

The delivery of time-critical medical items is a serious limitation and cost for healthcare in remote and regional Australia. Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) have become a routine part of the medical delivery infrastructure in some developing countries, improving timeliness, reducing costs, and saving lives. However, their use in the Australian health care supply chain is still in its infancy.

The project will explore integrating drones into the existing health transport infrastructure framework. It will collaborate with the Civil Aviation and Safety Authority to identify and regulate flight paths within current airspace requirements.

The maximum flying range has been set at 250 km at 235 km. In the short-term, the target is to achieve regular drone flights of up to 100 km by the end of 2021 and regular drone flights of up to 250 km and regular transport of medical items to and from remote communities by 1 July 2023. Negotiations are on with firms for appropriate drone airframes that are able to deal with both the wet and dry seasons.

The pilot has been supported by iMOVE, Australia’s leading applied research centre in the transportation and mobility sector. They help both the public and private sectors tackle transport-related challenges by connecting and activating the ideas, people and resources to get things moving. As a national centre for collaborative research in transport and mobility, iMOVE will fund the project, along with the NT Government Department of Health and Charles Darwin University (CDU). Drone services consultant UAV is advising on the project. Drone pilots will soon be recruited and will undergo specialist training.

iMOVE Programs Director Lee-Ann Breger said that regional communities face medical access and health supply issues that could be addressed with the provision of suitable technology. “There are about eight million people living in rural and remote parts of the country – that’s about a third of our population living in places where getting life-saving medical supplies is not only a race against time but also a battle against the tyranny of distance, harsh landscapes and unpredictable elements,” said Breger.

Lee-Ann revealed that the project is looking to create an efficient model so drone health delivery services can eventually be rolled out in other regional locations across Australia.

The role of Charles Darwin University (CDU) is to explore the potential of using automated aircraft for the delivery of time-critical medical items to remote communities across the Northern Territory. Interim Vice-Chancellor and President Professor Mike Wilson Professor Wilson agreed that the collaboration would be a testing ground for the application of autonomous systems into healthcare delivery across Australia.

While drones are already being used in health care in developing countries, he noted, more research was needed to understand where drones can reduce costs and improve healthcare outcomes for remote communities in the Northern Territory. The territory presents unique challenges, such as long distances, problems caused by monsoonal rain, cyclones, extreme temperatures and humidity – all will have to be solved by researchers.

Apart from addressing the main issue of access, the project holds promise for the local economy. NT Minister for Health Natasha Fyles confirmed that apart from keeping remote territories areas healthy and safe, this technology would create new jobs and opportunities

“The use of drones will be a game-changer when it comes to enhancing our healthcare system. It doesn’t matter whether you live in the city or in the bush — Territorians deserve to have access to the very best health services, and this new technology will be a driving force in this space,” said Minister Fyles.

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