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Drone delivers island diabetic care

Professor Derek O’Keeffe, Galway University Hospitals and NUI Galway, and the world’s first diabetes drone. Photo: Andrew Downes, Xposure

Professor Derek O’Keeffe, Galway University Hospitals and NUI Galway, and the world’s first diabetes drone. Photo: Andrew Downes, Xposure

A drone has begun delivering life-saving diabetes care to the remote Aran Islands.   Professor Derek O’Keeffe, Consultant Endocrinologist at Galway University Hospitals and Professor of Medical Device Technology at NUI Galway, was the project lead for the world’s first autonomous beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS), vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) drone delivery of diabetes prescription medications (insulin, glucagon) and collection of a patient blood sample between Connemara Airport and Inis Mór, Aran Islands.

It is crucial that people with diabetes have access to their lifesaving medicine at all times, which is often challenging in remote geographic regions and in times of natural disasters. Recent severe weather events, including storms Emma and Ophelia, demonstrated a clear need to develop the capability to deliver insulin and other critical medications (such as glucagon) in times of crisis.

The Internet of Things (IoT) connected drone delivery was supported by the Irish Aviation Authority, operated in between commercial flights and was in contact with air space regulators at all times, showing the possibility of future deliveries of this kind within planned drone corridors.

Prof O’Keeffe said, “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. 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. To date, medical drones have demonstrated success, for example in delivering blood, defibrillators and human organs for transplant. This #DiabetesDrone project represents another milestone in the use of drones to improve patient care.”

The drone was launched from Connemara Airport using a combination of software - one for the pre-flight checklist and one for the mission flight. The drone was connected via Vodafone Ireland’s IoT network and it flew a pre-planned flight path using Q Ground Control software. This software allowed the connection of the primary cellular communications and backup satellite communications to be displayed, allowing the SUA (small unmanned aircraft) pilots on both sites to track the progress of the aircraft. This is very important, as is the need to implement the BVLOS emergency procedures. Once airborne the whole flight was monitored by the SUA Pilots from Survey Drones Ireland and Wingcopter.

The launch team had a live FPV (first-person view) camera feed from the aircraft to ensure a visual from the drone once it flew beyond visual line of sight for safety. The second team on Inis Mór, Aran Islands, had a second ground control station with satellite telecoms so they could monitor the location of the drone to the destination, at the local airfield.

Dr Marion Broderick, General Practitioner on the Aran Islands, said, “Drone delivery helps connectivity for island communities and has endless possibilities.”

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.”

For more information about the project, visit: and on Twitter @DiabetesDrone #DiabetesDrone