The University of Calgary’s Ward of the 21st Century (W21C) collaborates with Alberta Precision Labs, Stoney Nakoda Frist Nation, and SAIT to test whether the use of drones is possible to deliver essential medical services and supplies during a health crisis as shown in this handout image provided by University of Calgary. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-University of Calgary-Riley Brandt

The University of Calgary’s Ward of the 21st Century (W21C) collaborates with Alberta Precision Labs, Stoney Nakoda Frist Nation, and SAIT to test whether the use of drones is possible to deliver essential medical services and supplies during a health crisis as shown in this handout image provided by University of Calgary. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-University of Calgary-Riley Brandt

‘Sky is the limit:’ Alberta pilot project using drones to send medical supplies, COVID tests

Initial test flights ‘are going great so far’

The windswept foothills of Alberta’s Rocky Mountains are the setting for a pilot project using drones to deliver medical supplies and personal protective equipment to remote communities.

Researchers at the University of Calgary, Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT), Alberta Health Services and Alberta Precision Laboratories partnered with the three reserves that are part of the Stoney Nakoda First Nation last summer.

A large drone, looking very much like a small helicopter and able to carry up to 45 kilograms, delivered equipment and COVID-19 test kits on its maiden voyage to the Morley reserve west of Calgary.

The project was the brainchild of Wade Hawkins, lead researcher at SAIT’s Centre for Innovation and Research in Unmanned Systems, and Dr. John Conly, medical director of the Cumming School of Medicine’s research and innovation centre.

“We think that the sky is the limit, literally, for this type of technology, marrying drones with … medical supply delivery,” Conly said.

“We’re just priming ourselves for what could be a great delivery service.

“My vision is we create a drone army that would be supplemental to the medical care that we deliver.”

Hawkins said initial test flights “are going great so far.”

Eden Valley, southwest of Calgary, will provide challenges due to distance and strong winds. Big Horn, in central Alberta, is even farther away and the terrain is more rugged and cell service more spotty.

“Our goal is to prove this technology locally and then we’ll move that Canada-wide potentially — to northern territories with truly remote environments — and then developing countries.”

Hawkins said the Alberta tests are to wrap up by next summer and the idea is drawing international attention.

“We’ve even had interest from the World Health Organization (WHO). They’re actually a funder now and they’re interested in seeing what we can do,” he said.

“They’re interested in some of the countries in Africa, primarily for delivery of medical supplies, but also COVID testing … (and) delivery of mobile medical equipment.”

Conly, who has been a senior technical adviser with the WHO’s COVID-19 response program, said the agency sees the potential.

“They were quite intrigued about the issue for vaccine delivery. They would be able to load up and deliver vaccine to remote villages for self-inoculation.”

The project is also testing smaller drones to send medical equipment, such as portable ultrasound devices, directly to patients, so a doctor could do remote examinations.

“The ultrasounds are getting tiny. I’d say less than a pound. They can actually be powered by plugging into your smartphone,” said Dr. Andrew Kirkpatrick, a professor at the Cumming School of Medicine and a trauma surgeon who has worked with NASA.

“If it’s immediately life-threatening, you can act on it. Time is everything in emergency medicine.”

The CEO of the Stoney Nakoda said the First Nation is thrilled to be on the ground floor of testing new technology.

Ryan Robb said Morley is next to the Trans-Canada Highway, but the other reserves are more isolated. So drones could prove valuable in providing better health care.

“We could see this being used to deliver medicine. We still have many people on our reserve where I can’t drive to their house unless I’m in a four-wheel drive,” Robb said.

“We would like to be cutting edge, too. These aren’t the same drones your kids are playing with.”

Dr. Aurang Khan with Stoney Health Services said the use of drones is essential for remote communities, especially to test for COVID-19.

“Having this technology to be able to deliver personal protective equipment and swabs and testing kits to the health centre … is really going to improve the outcome for our community members in terms of health,” he said.

“We can easily summon the drone and have all the swabs loaded on to it and sent to the provincial lab at Foothills Hospital (in Calgary) and we’ll get the results in a very short time.”

Bill Graveland, The Canadian Press

AlbertaCalgaryCoronavirusdroneHealthcarevideo

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Alberta chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw said on Thursday that the province has seen its first case of the B.1.617 variant. (Photography by Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta)
Red Deer nears record number of active COVID-19 cases

Alberta reports 1,857 new cases of COVID-19, 1,326 new variants

People line up outside an immunization clinic to get their Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine in Edmonton, Tuesday, April 20, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Alberta passes bill to give all workers paid leave to get COVID-19 vaccine shot

Labour Minister Jason Copping says Bill 71 will reduce barriers for Alberta workers to get vaccinated

Alberta completed 18,412 COVID-19 tests, as reported on Wednesday, for a test positivity rate of 9.5 per cent. (NIAID-RML via AP)
Highest daily count of 2021 so far: Alberta reports 1,699 COVID-19 cases

Variants now make up 59 per cent of Alberta’s active cases

Alberta’s chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw and Premier Jason Kenney say the province would look at adding additional COVID-19 measures in the coming weeks if the virus continues to spread. (Photo by Government of Alberta)
Walk-in COVID-19 vaccination clinic to open in Red Deer

Alberta adds 1,345 new cases of the virus

Public health restrictions on non-essential travel and vacation bookings are being increased in B.C. (B.C. government)
COVID-19: B.C. announces signage along Alberta border to discourage non-essential travel

B.C. extends COVID-19 indoor dining, group fitness ban until May 25

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and United States President Joe Biden smile as they say farewell following a virtual joint statement in Ottawa, Tuesday, February 23, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Trudeau pledges to cut emissions by 40% to 45% by 2030, short of U.S. goal

Trudeau announced target during a virtual climate summit convened by U.S. President Joe Biden

A health care worker prepares to test a Coastal GasLink field worker for COVID-19. (Coastal GasLink photo)
Alberta bill would protect health workers, care homes from some COVID-19 lawsuits

The bill proposes exempting a range of workers, including doctors, pharmacists and care-home operators, from being sued over COVID-19 unless it was for gross negligence

Journal de Montreal is seen in Montreal, on Thursday, April 22, 2021. The daily newspaper uses a file picture of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau dressed in traditional Indian clothing during his trip to India to illustrate a story on the Indian variant of the coronavirus. Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press
Montreal newspaper blasted for front-page photo of Trudeau in India

Trudeau is wearing traditional Indian clothes and holding his hands together in prayer beside a caption that reads, ‘The Indian variant has arrived’

Education Minister Adriana LaGrange was in Red Deer on Friday to provide an update on the province's COVID-19 response in schools.
Photo by PAUL COWLEY/Advocate staff
Alberta government aiming to boost financial literacy among students

Government providing grants to organizations who will help design financial literacy programming

President Joe Biden holds a virtual bilateral meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
U.S. to help Canada with more COVID-19 vaccine supply, Biden says

The U.S. has already provided Canada with about 1.5 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine

In this image from video, former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin, center, is taken into custody as his attorney, Eric Nelson, left, looks on, after the verdicts were read at Chauvin’s trial for the 2020 death of George Floyd, Tuesday, April 20, 2021, at the Hennepin County Courthouse in Minneapolis, Minn. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Court TV via AP, Pool
George Floyd’s death was ‘wake-up call’ about systemic racism: Trudeau

Derek Chauvin was found guilty Tuesday on all three charges against him

sign
Alberta Biobord Corp. recently hosted a virtual open house from Stettler

The company plans to develop a fuel pellet and medium density fibre board (MDF) plant near the community

Most Read