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Care by Air: Innovation Taking Flight

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By Laura Zilke

With the sound described only as that of a buzzing swarm of bees, an innovative drone delivery pilot project has literally taken flight. Dubbed Care by Air – Halton Healthcare and partners DSV Air & Sea Inc. Canada, Drone Delivery Canada (DDC), McMaster University and Air Canada Cargo, have launched a six-month pilot project with the hopes of clearing the path for drone deliveries of medical supplies – a project that is among the first of its kind in Canada.

“Advancing how we deliver care, includes finding new and efficient ways to use technology. Being at the forefront of an innovative drone delivery system is the ideal way to contribute to the advancement of healthcare so we can be more responsive to the care needs of our patients, families and communities,” says Hilary Rodrigues, Senior Vice President, Corporate Services, Performance & Chief Financial Officer, Halton Healthcare.

Halton Healthcare is located in a growing community covering both urban and rural populations. The organization has three hospitals that stretch a nearly 34km distance between Georgetown and Oakville Trafalgar Memorial Hospitals, with its Milton District Hospital sitting almost at the mid-way point. With specialized specimen testing occurring at the Oakville Trafalgar Memorial Hospital (OTMH) site, transporting samples from hospital to hospital over that distance means that time is always of the essence.

“As a hospital organization, we are sensitive to many of the same issues that impact other service providers – rising fuel costs, supply chain issues and a responsibility to support our natural environment,” continues Rodrigues. “And because we’re responsible for delivering care – even small disruptions can make a critical difference.”

So when an internal innovation grant was submitted by a team of staff covering diagnostics, lab and pharmacy at Halton Healthcare, encouraging the organization to consider options for advancing the delivery of care using drones, the organization was ready to help the idea liftoff.

“We log multiple courier trips from our Milton and Georgetown Hospitals to OTMH each day and it is only going up as we see a higher volume of patients,” relates Shairoz Kherani, Director, Diagnostic Imaging & Laboratory Services, Halton Healthcare. “The financial and environmental costs of that are significant, but what’s even more critical are the potential for delays in clinical results, and therefore care for our patients,” continues Kherani.

Officially launched on October 13, 2022. The Care by Air pilot project will initially define flight routes from DSV’s Milton, Ontario headquarters to Halton Healthcare’s Oakville Trafalgar Memorial Hospital using DDC’s Sparrow drone, its DroneSpot® takeoff and landing zones and the company’s proprietary FLYTE software.

“This project aims to demonstrate the benefit and value of a drone delivery system in healthcare, especially compared to more traditional transportation methods. With their speed, agility and efficiency this innovative delivery system can easily respond to urgent calls,” adds Steve Magirias, CEO of Drone Delivery of Canada. “We envision creating a web of flight routes to service Georgetown, Milton District and Oakville Trafalgar Memorial hospitals to interconnect all three hospitals with a reliable, cost-effective, emission-free solution.”

The test will involve transport of goods starting with a neutral substance like water, progressing to medical isotopes – which are some of the most time-critical medical supplies. Depending on the type of isotope, timelines for expiry can be under two hours. The current path of medical isotopes sees them travelling the congested 400 series highways through the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area.

“The post pandemic era has highlighted the need to find innovations in healthcare, enabling safe, secure, and reliable ways to deliver vital or urgent medical supplies to facilitate patient care,” explains Martin Roos, Managing Director of DSV Air & Sea Inc. Canada. “The Care by Air project represents a critical step toward optimizing these supply chains.  We are excited to take this next step in drone logistics by partnering as the hub for deliveries to Oakville Trafalgar Memorial Hospital and to play an integral role in developing drone delivery routes in Halton. This will benefit both Halton Healthcare’s hospitals and the patients they serve.”

Care by Air will see daily cargo drone test flights tracked for support and regulatory approval for the eventual transport of a wide range of healthcare supplies and products, including specimens such as blood or human tissue and medical isotopes (supplied by McMaster University). These items fall under a “dangerous goods” classification and require demonstration to aviation regulators for approval.

“Once we meet the regulators’ requirement to deliver dangerous goods, it really opens up a lot of possibilities for hospitals throughout the system,” says Rodrigues. “That designation will open a whole host of things that we can deliver.”

“The benefits of what we can move with these machines in the years to come is profound,” concludes Kherani, “Drones are where and how the future is moving.”

Laura Zilke is Manager, Communications & Public Affairs, Halton Healthcare.

 

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