World’s first drone delivery of insulin may be useful model in pandemic response
A successful drone delivery of insulin for a person with diabetes in a remote location in Ireland may serve as a useful model for health care delivery during a future pandemic response, according to data presented at the Endocrine Society Annual Meeting.
“We need to stay committed to ensuring highquality health care delivery to our patients at all times, and the COVID19 pandemic is another example of the challenges we face when serving our role,” Spyridoula Maraka, MD, MS, assistant professor of medicine at the Center for Osteoporosis and Metabolic Bone Diseases at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and Central Arkansas Veterans Healthcare System in Little Rock, told Healio. “Drone delivery has endless possibilities and can help us connect with our patient communities even in the most remote areas during sentinel events, such as hurricanes, earthquakes, pandemics, which unfortunately have become more common.”
An unmet need
In 2017, Derek O’Keeffe, MD, PhD, a consultant endocrinologist at National University of Ireland Galway and professor of medical device technology at NUI Galway noticed that his patients with diabetes were unable to make it into clinic after Hurricane Ophelia, due to flooding, Maraka said in an interview. The same happened after winter storm Emma in Ireland, when many were snowed in on farms and other remote locations.
“In these remote geographic regions, communities and individuals can become isolated for days and a situation may arise where patients can run out of their lifesaving diabetes medication,” Maraka said. “Given the climate is changing and it is predicted that more and more of adverse weather events will occur, we assembled a team to pave alternative ways of health care delivery.”
The researchers developed an unmanned aerial vehicle delivery solution using a vertical takeoff and landing Wingcopter 178 drone, operated under beyond visual line of sight conditions, ensuring compliance with all European viation erospace regulations.
The 32-minute test flight took place Sept. 13, with the drone traveling from Galway, Ireland, to the Aran Islands, approximately 20 km each way, delivering insulin from a pharmacy to the patient’s clinician.
“This represents the first documented autonomous delivery of insulin for a patient with diabetes,” the researchers wrote in an abstract.
The project took 1 year from initial idea to completion, Maraka said, crediting project partners Wingcopter and Skytango with helping other academic collaborators to have mission success.
“There were significant regulatory challenges across multiple domains including aviation, medication dispensing, pharmaceutical distribution and cold chain protocols,” Maraka said. “We had to have backup procedures for every phase of this mission.”
Maraka said during a presentation that the drone returned with a blood sample collected from the patient for monitoring HbA1c, allowing for remote monitoring.
O’Keeffe said the mission’s success showed drone delivery is possible, but there are challenges.
“One of the challenges with this drone delivery enterprise is to make sure we are doing things with a stepwise approach, working with the regulators at all times,” O’Keeffe said after a presentation. “That includes aviation regulators and medication regulators. A lot of things with drone delivery are overpromised and then underdelivered. What we expect to see initially is a scaling up of operations in remote, rural areas, and then as the protocols and the technology improve, then it will become more mainstream in the months and years ahead.” – by Regina Schaffer
O’Keeffe D, et al. OR30-04. The Endocrine Society Annual Meeting; 2020 (conference canceled/virtual meeting).
Disclosure: Wingcopter provided the drone and Vodafone Ireland allowed use of its 4G network. Novo Nordisk had an advisory role. Maraka and O’Keeffe report no relevant financial disclosures.