CALGARY -- Calgary researchers are looking at drones as a way of delivering medical supplies to remote communities, which can be especially important during pandemics.

Researchers at the University of Calgary, SAIT, Alberta Health Services and Alberta Precision Laboratories are partnering with the Stoney Nakoda Nations to deliver medical equipment and COVID-19 test kits to remote communities.

"We know that testing for COVID-19 is one of our most effective tools against its spread," said Dr. John Conly, medical director of the W21C Research and Innovation Centre at the Cummig School of Medicine and a co-principal investigator on the project.

"Many remote communities in Canada do not have easy access to testing centres and medical supplies to support rapid testing and containment. Drones can help us respond to that need.”

The teams conducted a successful test run earlier this year, delivering PPE and COVID-19 test kits to the Morley reserve on June 25 using SAIT’s unmanned SwissDrones SDO 50 V2 helicopter, which can carry a payload of up to 45 kilograms.

“We were able to confirm test kits for COVID-19 can be delivered to a remote area, and the samples can survive the return to a lab with no degrading of the specimen,” says Conly. “This could open many doors for us to reach remote and isolated locations for all medical emergencies, including the current pandemic.”

Researchers are planning additional trials in the coming weeks at the Eden Valley and Big Horn reserves. If drones prove effective, Conly says the project could be expanded nationally or even even globally.

It was a chance meeting between Conly and Wade Hawkins, the lead researcher at SAIT’s Centre for Innovation and Research in Unmanned Systems (CIRUS), during a lunch break at a medical conference in November 2019 that saw the project come to fruition.

“In many areas of Canada, drones must be guided and monitored with the assistance of line of sight,” said Hawkins, also a co-principal investigator on the project. “We hope to move beyond visual line of sight and fly from a lab or health centre directly to a remote community.”

Samples are currently brought to and collected from remote areas using third-party courier companies. Drones would complement those existing services and provide access when traditional means won't work.

"Our reserve in Morley has multiple access points, however, our satellite reserves in Eden Valley and Big Horn are remote and a delivery system using drones could play a critical role in the health and safety of our communities,” says Ryan Robb, CEO of the Stoney Tribal Administration.

“Like many remote Canadian communities, weather can play a key role, for example depending on the time of the year, ice roads and floods can create access barriers.”