The Stoney Nakoda Nations (Tribe) calls much of Alberta, Canada’s remote Rocky Mountain Range their home. In their native language, Nakoda means “friendly ally”. In the uncertain times that the whole world is facing due to the coronavirus, the Nokoda people are turning to their friendly allies from the University of Calgary, Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT), Alberta Health Services, and Alberta Precision Laboratories to help keep their communities safe and healthy. Keeping the Nakoda people safe during the pandemic means having access to personal protection equipment (PPE) and COVID-19 test kits, not an easy thing when you live amongst the mountains, cut off from much of the modern world. Turning to modern equipment, a new project using drones to deliver PPEs and test kits to the Nakoda Nation has begun.
In November of 2019, Dr. John Conly, Director of the W21C Research and Innovation Center at the University of Calgary’s Cumming School of Medicine, and Wade Hawkins, lead researcher at SAIT’s Center for Innovation and Research in Unmanned Systems met at a conference while on their lunch break. Over their meal and subsequent conversations, the two discussed how they envisioned a way of supplying medical necessities to the remote communities throughout Alberta with the use of drones. These remote areas rely on expensive, and time consuming courier services to make infrequent medical deliveries. Dr. Conly and Mr. Hawkins knew there had to be a better way.
When the pandemic hit, they quickly realized that what they once saw as a dream for the future, needed to be put into action immediately. “We know that testing for COVID-19 is one of our most effective tools against its spread,” said Dr. Conly. “Many remote communities in Canada do not have easy access to testing centers and medical supplies to support rapid testing and containment. Drones can help us respond to that need.” The problem is that in much of Canada, and the rest of the world, drones need to be operated within visual line of sight. Beyond Visual Line Of Sight (BVLOS) is widely considered to be the next frontier to be conquered in the world of drone technology. Currently, the FAA is working with drone and logistics experts to safely integrate BVLOS into the national airspace.
Hawkins plans to set up three test sites with the Nakoda Nation for the drone delivery project. The hope is to prove the validity of the system so that it can be used more broadly throughout Canada, and eventually BVLOS. The specific drone Hawkins used for the tests was the SwissDrones SDO 50 V2 helicopter, a drone that is specifically designed to be operated with BVLOS capabilities. The SDO 50 is a heavy lift drone that weighs a little over 90lbs. It has an additional payload capacity of just under 100lbs, which means it can be used to carry a wide range of medical supplies.
Hawkins ran the first trial on June 25, 2020, from the Nakoda Nation Morely Reserve in southern Alberta. Loaded into the drone’s cargo case were COVID-19 test kits and PPEs supplied by Alberta Health Services and Alberta Precision Laboratories. The test proved that the drones could transport the test kits from a lab to a remote location, be administered, and then returned to the lab for processing. The test showed that not only could the drone save time and money, it could also be used to save lives. The drones could also be used to transport other medical equipment that would allow people to continue self isolating while still receiving critical medical care.
Dr. Andrew Kirkpatrick is a professor at CSM and trauma surgeon at the Foothills Medical Center, one of the largest hospitals in Alberta. He recently was awarded a grant to begin using a drone to deliver portable ultrasound devices so patients can be remotely examined. Whether a patient is too far from the hospital, or just down the street, they can have a telecommunication appointment with a doctor that goes beyond discussing symptoms. “With this device, and access to a smartphone, with connectivity, a person can be guided remotely by an expert medical professional to perform an ultrasound on themselves or to have someone at the scene perform it on them,” says Kirkpatrick. “We’ve confirmed this system can be used to check for evidence of COVID-19 in the lungs, and I can see it being utilized for many other medical emergencies, from diagnosing broken bones to ruptured spleens.”
Dr. Conly and Mr. Hawkins are set to continue trials in two other Nakoda communities, Eden Valley and Big Horn. The Morley Reserve is relatively easy to access. However, Eden Valley and Big Horn have fewer points of entry, making the possibility of a successful drone delivery program there even more important. Dr. Conly said that with the success of these trials, using drones to make medical deliveries could eventually become standard procedure throughout all of Canada. “This could open many doors for us to reach remote and isolated locations for all medical emergencies,” Dr. Conly said, “including the current pandemic.”