Wing, a subsidiary of Google parent company Alphabet, announced in April that it had received Civil Aviation Safety Authority approval to fly drones over built-up areas in Canberra, Australia.

Drones transforming medical services delivery

By Lynne Minion
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A low-density sprawl of 420,000 people that is known as “the bush capital”, Canberra would appear to be an unlikely digital transformation hub. But above its leafy boulevards, national institutions and mobs of kangaroos, a fleet of mini planes will soon be zipping around carrying painkillers, lattes, gelato and golf balls.

Wing announced in April that it had received Civil Aviation Safety Authority approval to fly drones over built-up areas for its business-to-backyard service in what is a groundbreaking development in the race to commercialize the technology.

“Whether you’re a parent with a sick child at home and have run out of baby paracetamol, a busy professional who forgot to pick up fresh bread during your regular weekly shop, or you simply just want to order your morning flat white without the hassle of having to drive to the cafe, Wing has teamed up with local Canberra businesses to give customers the opportunity to have a range of goods delivered in a handful of minutes,” Wing said in a blog post announcing the news.

OVERCOMING OBSTACLES

Drone deliveries are certainly expected to transform the way we rapidly access small items such as allergy meds and flu syrup. But companies looking to gain a foothold in the potentially lucrative field globally, including Amazon Prime Air, have often had to negotiate Byzantine regulatory and policy obstacles, and community backlash. In the Australian Capital Territory, however, Wing has had the advantage of a government keen to provide a launch pad, with chief minister Andrew Barr writing to company CEO James Ryan Burgess in 2017 that: “Canberra is well-placed for the roll-out of new and disruptive technologies.”

Two years, a proof-of-concept trial and more than 3,000 deliveries later, Wing’s launch into the consumer market will start off with 100 households in three suburbs. The service will then be expanded, with projections that 11,000 drone deliveries could occur each day in Canberra by 2030.

Plans are also underway for Wing to take off in other countries, and a launch is planned for Finland’s Helsinki. Since the Australian licence was granted, the US Federal Aviation Administration has awarded Wing the first “air carrier” certification for a drone company, allowing it to conduct commercial deliveries in Blacksburg, Virginia.

As with most pioneering efforts, however, Wing has met with opposition. Residents within Canberra’s trial areas claimed the drones were noisy and warned they could drop medicines into the wrong yards, invade people’s privacy or crash. Conservation experts said they could have a “significant impact” on birdlife. Opposition political parties called for an inquiry, which is underway. Within the submissions received by the parliamentary committee, the vast bulk of which oppose the project, one resident claimed that during the trial there had been: “Distressed mothers, frightened children, frustrated families and many others aggravated by the invasion of drones.”

In response to the controversy, Wing has developed a quieter drone for its commercial roll-out. But ultimately, in the ACT where the incumbent Labor Party has ruled since 2001, support for the company’s efforts is assured.

A GAME CHANGER?

Wing has emerged from X, Alphabet’s innovation arm or “moonshot factory”, and its little plane flies along at a cruise height of 30 meters and a speed of 125km/hr to its delivery address. Once there, it hovers and descends to 7.5 meters above the garden and lowers the purchased wares before climbing back up into the air and flying back to base.

Machine learning algorithms allow each drone to negotiate trees, buildings and power lines, while “remote pilots” based in a converted warehouse in a nearby industrial area are required to be at the helm of each flight.

The Alphabet off-shoot has partnered with local companies to co-locate in its facility and come onboard for what could be a game-changing, standard setting roll-out. A small pharmacy chain, Capital Chemist, has joined for the project launch.

GLOBAL DISRUPTION?

While Wing’s drone-to-home delivery service is a first in the consumer medications market, efforts have been underway for years to realize the promise of the technology for the transportation of blood, vaccines, medical equipment, medications and body parts for transplant in clinical and emergency settings. And continuing milestones show it is becoming integrated into healthcare worldwide.

Since December, Swoop Aero has been delivering life-saving vaccines to remote parts of the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu in a trial funded by UNICEF and the Australian Government.

About 60 percent of blood products delivered beyond the Rwandan capital of Kigali are transported by Zipline’s drones, with the company expanding into Tanzania and Ghana.

In the US in March, UPS began delivering medical samples with Matternet drones at the WakeMed hospital and campus in North Carolina in what was the first revenue-generating drone delivery scheme approved by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Meanwhile, back in Canberra as Wing’s project prepares for lift off, a resident who took part in the trial said complaints about the noise of the drones should pale into insignificance when compared to the “positive advancement” of the technology and the need to embrace change.

“I’m sick at home alone with the kids and can’t get out, I need cough lollies and Sudafed, I didn’t even have to stress about it, the drone had it covered,” Aanika Shah wrote to the parliamentary inquiry.

“There is so much negative stigma attached to anything that is different or new that sometimes due to that we overlook something that could be so useful if everyone was just willing to give it a go.”

Canberra is giving it a go, but change of a disruptive kind doesn’t come easy. 

This article was first published in the newest issue of the HIMSS Insights eBook, which looks at the digital transformation of healthcare across the globe. MobiHealthNews is a HIMSS Media publication.