A medical drone for the NT: Challenges and opportunities
Australia is one step closer to another first – having a customised drone to deliver medical supplies to remote Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory.
Numerous organisations have lodged expressions of interest to tender, to build and design the drone for a pilot program in West Arnhem Land. Partners on this iMOVE Australia project include the Northern Territory Department of Health (NT Health), and the North Australian Centre for Autonomous Systems at Charles Darwin University.
Jackie Dujmović, is co-founder and CEO of Hover UAV, a drone consultancy based in Queensland, and acting as an adviser on this project. Her company is a leader in this emerging sector and involved in several Australian industry firsts such as shark detection, urban drone delivery trials and is now extending that experience to medical delivery services. She was one of the key drivers in writing the specifications, the ‘wish list’ for an NT Health drone that doesn’t exist. Yet.
“We’ve come on board with the project to help the partner organisations move forward with all of their approvals, procedures, and processes so the drone can operate cost-effectively. We’ve looked at what the drone needs to do, where it needs to fly, what areas it will fly over, and what’s on the ground,” she says.
Other elements of the specifications include designing a bespoke ground station, mission planner, and ground infrastructure. The manufacturer will need to link the drones via a software platform with an intuitive dashboard, allowing operators and recipients to track the zone online.
The dashboard will also show power levels and other drone vital statistics. To land, the drone will use its vision sensor to read a visible marker, similar to a QR code, on the ground landing site. Another capability is the drone’s use in transporting cold-storage vaccines.
The unique challenges of the NT
Medical delivery drones already operate in remote regions of sub-Saharan Africa and other developing countries, but the NT Health drone project faces different challenges.
Our highly-regulated air space is a key challenge, for instance.
“A lot of thought is going into working out the drone’s flight path”, says Dujmović.
“We’ve got to tackle regulations over the air space where the drone will fly. Some of the areas may be military, so we’re co-ordinating with the RAAF. The flight path will take into consideration sensitive areas, such as sacred sites, schools, sporting fields, homes – we’ll avoid flying over these. If we carry any medical supplies, it’s classed as dangerous goods, so we have to have procedures to carry them safely.”
“These drones will fly on a geo-fenced route using long-range radio frequency waves, mobile phone coverage – though that will be sparse – and satellite. It’s about managing communications of how people can command and control the drone over vast distances.”
The successful tenderer will also have to ensure their drone design passes the test of NT’s harsh climate, including humidity, heat, dust, wind and unpredictable weather patterns. It must also be able to work long distances between populations. There’s also the danger posed by monsoonal weather, but the drone will wait until there’s a break in the weather. It’s usually better for drones to travel at night due to less air traffic and lower heat and humidity.
Drones and community
There’s another consideration – community acceptance. Here’s why.
Djumović says: “Remote communities may have different reasons why they don’t accept it’s safe to have a drone flying overhead and drop off medical supplies securely. We’ll need to work with communities to solve any issues they might have.”
“This NT Health drone has to be cost-effective because we’ll need a few of them,” she says.
Having drones deliver medical supplies is more environmentally sustainable than road delivery. Google’s Wing, the key player in drone delivery, estimates switching from car to drone delivery can save 94% per package in carbon emissions.
And the NT Health drone project has a sustainability edge, says Djumović.
We want to make sure the program can grow and be sustainable after the trial, and we also want to make sure it could be adapted in the Northern Territory to create jobs there in manufacturing, maintenance, and support.
Ms Djumović says the project will create jobs in remote communities, including piloting the drones, ground support, basic maintenance, organising fuel, and co-ordination, for example.
“This project will really put the Northern Territory on the road map, not just for small medical deliveries, but it has potential to carry large freight and help in non-medical areas. There’s a really great gateway for the drone manufacturer to test their products in South East Asian countries, with their extreme temperatures and different environments.”
For now, NT Health drone project’s partners are short-listing drone manufacturers to ask them to tender and are hopeful the pilot may start later this year or early next year. Piloting of the project will take place at CDU’s Katherine Campus and in West Arnhem Land.