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Taking medical supplies to the skies: how IoT can improve patient care

26 Sep 2019

Jon Lee-Davey

IoT Healthcare Lead, Vodafone Business

Debbie Power

Debbie Power

IoT Country Manager,
Vodafone Business

In Ireland, over 225,000 people are affected by diabetes every day. This equates to 5-6% of the Irish population.[i]

For people living with this illness it is critical to have access to insulin and other lifesaving medicine at all times, otherwise there can be devastating consequences.

In remote regions, and in times of natural disasters, this can be a challenge – something that hurricane Ophelia in 2017, the worst to affect Ireland in 50 years, and storm Emma in 2018 highlighted.

Due to flooding and heavy snow, Professor Derek O’Keefe from University Hospital Galway noticed that patients were unable to pick up vital medication. With climate change, these severe weather events are becoming more prevalent.

Such disruption to transport, electricity and phone connectivity means that individuals and communities can become isolated for days and emergencies do arise.

We believe drones offer exciting opportunities in this area that will benefit society and the economy as a whole.

Autonomous drone delivery

First medical drone-Aran
Pictured l-r: Professor Derek O’Keeffe, NUI Galway and Marc Daly, Vodafone Ireland with the world’s first autonomous diabetes medication drone.
Photo: Andrew Downes, Xposure

Medical drones have already demonstrated success for blood, defibrillator and organ delivery in several countries where we do business.

These successes have inspired our recent partnership with NUI Galway, which together with several industry experts, saw a world-first beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) autonomous diabetes drone delivery of insulin and glucagon (donated by Novo Nordisk, the world’s largest insulin manufacturer) from the Irish mainland to the Aran Islands, before returning with blood samples.

We’re proud to say that this seems like is a real milestone in the use of drones to improve patient care.

The Wingcopter 178 Heavy Lift, supplied by Heavy Drones Ireland, was launched from Connemara Airport using Q Ground control software, connected through Vodafone’s IoT network in Ireland and operated by a team of Special Use Airspace (SUA) pilots from Survey Drones Ireland and Wingcopter.

Sky-high healthcare

The Skytango software platform was used to manage checklists from all parties pre-launch, monitor the operation in real-time and ensure compliance from both an aviation and medical regulatory standpoint.

The total flight distance covered on the first leg was 21.7 km while 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.

For safety, the team attached a live camera to ensure a visual throughout the experiment and a second team on Inis Mór monitored the location of the drone via satellite.

Supported by the Irish Aviation Authority, the drone 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.

Being able to deliver medication through this method could increase support during times of crisis, where infrastructure damage stops conventional ground or air transport.

And it is not just remote communities that will benefit.

This technology will also make it easier and safer to provide outpatient care where supplies and medication could be delivered direct to patients’ homes, making it more convenient for those that struggle to make it to a pharmacy. 

Improved connectivity, improved care

Putting drones aside, IoT-enabled solutions are beginning to make a huge impact in healthcare.

And beyond the hospital, remote monitoring of patients through connected devices, such as wearable heart rate monitoring cuffs, can identify irregularities and send pertinent information to health providers to aid with diagnosis

We’ve even seen how connected devices can improve care through better patient engagement, collecting information and supporting patients with gentle reminders in alignment with their medication cycles.

These technologies result in a multitude of benefits improving health outcomes, as well as patient satisfaction, but also freeing up doctors time, reducing the length of hospital stays, as well as preventing re-admission.

Other examples of how IoT has been used in healthcare include sensors that track the location of medical equipment, detecting falls in the vulnerable in their own home, pharmacy inventory control, and environmental monitoring of temperature sensitive products.

And when combined with the power of 5G we have already seen some impressive use cases. Think of a connected ambulance providing paramedics with a way to share patient symptoms before they even reach the hospital.

Speeding up the process in times of need can literally mean the difference between life and death.

Recently ASSERT medical centre in Cork became the first 5G connected training centre in the world; showcasing real-time monitoring, telemedicine and robotic surgery.

Looking beyond the healthcare industry, what else could IoT benefit? Could drones be used for customer deliveries or for transporting minerals from field to factory? What about using sensors to track the location of inventory in and around your warehouse?

Telecoms operators are very well placed to offer services and solutions that will address the challenges to come and, through continued testing, enable the benefits of the technology to be realised safely and securely.

Taking medical supplies to the skies

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