The Seagull has landed: Drone delivers crucial diabetic meds to Aran Islands

16 Sep 2019

From left: Prof Derek O’Keefe, NUI Galway; Steven Flynn, Skytango; Wayne Floyd, Survey Drones Ireland; and Mark Daly, Vodafone Ireland. Image: Andrew Downes/Xposure

Those living with diabetes on the Aran Islands could now see their prescriptions delivered from the mainland in a matter of minutes.

Efforts to reduce the levels of isolation experienced by those at the furthest reaches of Ireland have seen researchers and other stakeholders test a service that could improve the quality of life of those with diabetes living on the Aran Islands.

The Diabetes Drone project announced the first successful test flight of an autonomous drone that made a safe return journey from Connemara Airport to the island of Inis Mór. After carrying important diabetes medicine to the island, the drone then collected and delivered a patient’s blood sample to be returned to the mainland.

Working with support of the Irish Aviation Authority, the journey went off without a hitch, opening up the potential for future deliveries of this kind within planned drone corridors. The drone, nicknamed The Seagull, was a Wingcopter 178 Heavy Lift with a parcel delivery box that can travel up to 100km in less than an hour.

The launch team was then able to watch the drone in first-person view as it flew to make sure it was following the right course, while a second team on Inis Mór had a ground control station with satellite telecoms so they could monitor the location of the drone to the destination.

Led by NUI Galway, the project had a number of stakeholders in both academia – including the University of Limerick and the University of Arkansas in the US – as well as industry players such as Vodafone Ireland, Skytango and insulin manufacturer Novo Nordisk.

The drone was connected via Vodafone Ireland’s internet-of-things network and flew a pre-planned flight path using QGroundControl software. This software allowed the connection of the primary cellular communications and backup satellite communications to be displayed, allowing the pilots on both sites to track the progress of the aircraft.

Preparing for the climate crisis

Prof Derek O’Keeffe of NUI Galway, acting as lead on the project, stated that its purpose is to ensure that supplies of life-saving medicine are not interrupted during natural disasters and a changing climate.

“Climate change means that these types of severe weather events are becoming more prevalent. Individuals and communities in rural locations can become isolated for days after a severe weather event and an emergency may arise where patients can run out of their medicine,” he said.

“Therefore, it is incumbent on us to develop a solution for these emergencies, which addresses the clinical, technical and regulatory issues before a sentinel event occurs.”

Marion Hernon, a patient with diabetes on the Aran Islands, said: “Insulin is essential for my survival and having a diabetes drone service in an emergency situation would ensure this survival while living on an offshore island.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic