The international medical team that accomplished the world’s first documented drone delivery of insulin for a patient living in a remote community described the project in an ENDO 2020 abstract that will be published in the Journal of the Endocrine Society.
The 16-minute test flight from Galway, Ireland, to the Aran Islands about 12 miles off the west coast of Ireland took place Sept. 13 last year, according to the drone project’s principal investigator, Derek O’Keeffe, M.D., Ph.D., a consultant endocrinologist at National University of Ireland Galway. O’Keeffe said that after severe storms disrupted healthcare access in Ireland in recent years, they wanted to find a solution for future disasters when people with diabetes in remote regions may be stranded for days without their lifesaving diabetes medicines.
“We now have the drone technology and protocols in place to deliver diabetes medications and supplies in an actual disaster if needed,” he said. “This is a milestone in improving patient care.”
The large autonomous (self-flying) drone flew “beyond visual line of sight” during commercial flight operations in regulated airspace, O’Keeffe said. The project team’s yearlong planning required approvals from aviation, pharmaceutical, and clinical regulatory agencies.
Endocrinologist SpyridoulaMaraka, M.D., M.S., of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and the Central Arkansas Veterans Healthcare System, Little Rock, said the team had to address several healthcare delivery issues to send a prescription medicine via an unmanned aircraft operating a 4G cellular network using GPS waypoints.
“Insulin can be outside the fridge for hours, but it can’t be exposed to extreme heat, so we put it in an insulated parcel with temperature monitoring en route,” Maraka said. “We also put a security lock on the parcel in case the drone did not arrive at the right place.”
Because legally a pharmacist must dispense a prescription drug, she arranged for a pharmacist to dispense the insulin and another diabetes medication, glucagon before loading them to the drone for delivery.
Another unique aspect of the project, according to Maraka, is that the drone returned with a blood sample collected from the patient for monitoring blood glucose control (HbA1c). “We wanted to find a way to monitor glycemic control remotely,” she said. “It was the full circle of care, which has not been done by drone before.”
Maraka stressed that this ability for remote diagnostics could save lives. “A patient with type 1 diabetes could develop life-threatening diabetic ketoacidosis after more than one day without insulin,” she said. “A blood specimen would allow us to properly diagnose and treat the condition.”
For this project, Wingcopter provided the drone, Novo Nordisk served in an advisory role and Vodafone Ireland allowed use of its 4G network. The Endocrine Society, which is part of the U.S.-based Diabetes Disaster Response Coalition, offers tips on managing diabetes in an emergency.
The Wingcopter is the same unmanned aircraft that is also used by UPS.
World’s first documented drone delivery of insulin
In the abstract it reads:
After Ireland experienced Storm Ophelia (Cat 3 Hurricane) in 2017 and then Storm Emma (Winter Blizzard) in 2018, many of our patients with Diabetes had issues with insulin supplies as they remained housebound due to subsequent flooding/snowdrifts. Diabetes Mellitus is one of the world’s most common chronic diseases with approximately 400 million people affected. Insulin is often needed to achieve and maintain glycemic control and therefore is considered a lifesaving medication for patients with diabetes.3 Consequently, in order to ensure an adequate insulin supply method for patients, after a sentinel weather event, we developed a UAV delivery solution using a vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) Wingcopter 178 drone which we operated under beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) conditions. After a lengthy planning process, we ensured compliance with all Irish (European) Aviation Aerospace regulations. In addition we complied with regulations surrounding the dispensing of prescribed fridge medications. We had our maiden flight on September 13, 2019 from Galway, Ireland to the Aran Islands (20Km each way) delivering insulin from the pharmacist to the patient’s clinician. This represents the first documented autonomous delivery of insulin for a patient with diabetes.