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:’ 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

Flooding has become a reality for many communities in the Okanagan Valley as the region faces more extreme weather storms, blamed on the impact of climate change. (File photo)
Okanagan high target for spring flooding

Higher snowpack and mild winter precipitation levels raise concerns for Canada’s insurance industry

Terrance Josephson of the Princeton Posse, at left, and Tyson Conroy of the Summerland Steam clash during a Junior B hockey game at the Summerland Arena in the early spring of 2020. (John Arendt - Summerland Review)
QUIZ: How much do you know about hockey?

Test your knowledge of Canada’s national winter sport

Expect cold weather and snow over the weekend. (Submitted photo)
Prepare for subzero weekend in South Okanagan

Expect some snow to start falling Saturday night and into Sunday

Send your letter to the editor via email to news@summerlandreview.com. Please included your first and last name, address, and phone number.
LETTER: Thanks for supporting Summerland Food Bank

Generous donations benefited the community

A health-care worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a UHN COVID-19 vaccine clinic January 7, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Employers might be able to require COVID-19 vaccination from employees: B.C. lawyer

‘An employer must make the case’ using expert science, explains lawyer David Mardiros

U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders sits in on a COVID-19 briefing with Dr. Bonnie Henry, provincial health officer, and Adrian Dix, B.C. minister of health. (Birinder Narang/Twitter)
PHOTOS: Bernie Sanders visits B.C. landmarks through the magic of photo editing

Residents jump on viral trend of photoshopping U.S. senator into images

Auldin Maxwell stacks the 693rd block on the top of record-breaking Jenga tower on Nov. 29 2020. (Submitted)
Salmon Arm boy rests world-record attempt on single Jenga brick

Auldin Maxwell, 12, is now officially a Guinness world record holder.

(Hal Brindley - Dreamstime)
Enderby farmers caught between coyotes and bylaw tickets

The Smith family is stuck in a Catch-22 between protecting their livestock and incurring noise complaints

A COVID-19 exposure has been confirmed at Black Mountain Elementary in Kelowna Saturday, Jan. 23, 2021. (Google Image)
Another COVID-19 exposure confirmed at Kelowna school

Interior Health confirmed an exposure at Black Mountain Elementary School Saturday

Members of BCEHS Station 343 in Lake Country receive a donation of treats and wine from the community in December. (Contributed)
‘Unexpected and heartwarming’: Okanagan community supports paramedics

Cards, discounts, treats, more given to Lake Country paramedics in sign of support

A 75-year-old aircraft has been languishing in a parking lot on the campus of the University of the Fraser Valley, but will soon be moved to the B.C. Aviation Museum. (Paul Henderson/ Chilliwack Progress)
Vintage military aircraft moving from Chilliwack to new home at B.C. Aviation Museum

The challenging move to Vancouver Island will be documented by Discovery Channel film crews

The North Okanagan Naturalists' Club completed its annual swan and eagle counts Sunday, Jan. 17, 2021. (Claude Rioux - NONC photo)
North Okanagan bird count shows decrease in swan and eagle numbers

Trumpeter swans were down 61 per cent from last year’s count; eagles down 14 per cent

Okanagan Indian Band Chief Byron Louis has served as the band’s chief since his first of six electoral wins in 1991. (File photo)
Okanagan Indian Band seeks nominations for upcoming election

A new OKIB chief and council will be elected March 30, 2021

Lake Country firefighters helped deliver a healthy newborn baby Thursday, Jan. 21, 2020. (Pixabay)
Lake Country firefighters help deliver baby boy

Firefighters from the Winfield hall assisted with the birth of a healthy newborn Thursday morning

Most Read