Skytango’s CEO Steve Flynn co-ordinates Ireland’s first BVLOS #DiabetesDrone delivery of Insulin to island community in partnership with project lead – NUIG, Vodafone, Survey Drones Ireland, Wingcopter and Novo Nordisk.
JANUARY 2019 | Month 1
Can you please give me a call to discuss the logistics of sending a 50g payload to the Arann Islands via drone.
This was the brief email I received from Professor Derek O’Keeffe of NUI Galway back in January 2019 which gave birth to the #DiabetesDrone BVLOS (beyond visual line of sight) historic event which took place in the middle of Connemara – ironically 9 months later! The project was led by NUI Galway, project managed by Skytango with partners Survey Drones Ireland, Wingcopter, Vodafone and global healthcare company Novo Nordisk.
Derek, a Professor of Medical Device Technology, NUI Galway and Consultant Physician at Galway University Hospitals, asked me to meet with his group after he’d read about our work with the national postal service here in Ireland in 2018. He asked if we could deliver a batch of diabetes medicine (insulin) via a drone from the mainland near Galway to the Aran Islands.
Following Hurricane Ophelia in 2017 and the flooding that ensued, Derek noticed that his diabetes patients were unable to make it into his clinic. Storm Emma the following year had similar results when patients were snowed in on farms. All patients with Type 1 diabetes require a supply of both insulin and glucagon for disease management and 40% of patients with Type 2 diabetes require insulin therapy. These medications are usually available from local pharmacies, however in 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.
This gave him pause for thought. Climate change meant that these severe weather events would not be isolated and would become more commonplace in the future which would put his patients at greater and greater risk. He felt it was incumbent on him to look for a solution.
If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right!
My initial reaction was that not only was this a worthwhile #DronesForGood project but it was an opportunity to explore what is real and what is hype when it comes to drone deliveries. Because of advances that have already been made in the industry, I explained that the act of simply delivering something by drone was no longer news, but a BVLOS (beyond visual line of sight) delivery that tracked operational and regulatory compliance – vital for the delivery of medicines – and kept all stakeholders informed in real-time; the drone pilot, the hospital, the drug manufacturer, the patient, even the doctor and community under the drone, would be a project worth doing.
This was a terrific opportunity to work with NUIG (Galway University) but I knew we needed a cross-discipline team to pull it off.
The question was, what kind of drone did we need?
The first drone suggested was the DJI Mavic Pro. I heard from several quarters that ‘the specs say it will fly 8km’.
That’s the first bit of hype I needed to overcome. Just because a drone might say on the label that it can fly the distance, doesn’t mean it can really do it. Secondly, you can’t just throw a drone up in the air with something strapped to it and expect it to perform as it would without a payload. Thirdly, the distance we needed to cover was well over 8 km!
A traditional quad or octocopter wasn’t the best choice either to cover the almost 20km we needed it to. I knew we needed a fixed-wing system. I figured if we’re flying a parcel the size of an Epi-Pen, a foam wing with a small area for the payload might be the craft for the job. However, many of the pilots I know who fly foam wings were sceptical about this being reliable enough and on further investigation, the payload would need to be kept at a constant temperature which meant different technology and a larger payload.
As I was searching for the right machine, I was introduced to Sam Barraclough and Wayne Floyd of Survey Drones Ireland.
Back in April of this year, they were preparing to receive a new fixed-wing VTOL (vertical take-off and landing) from a German startup called Wingcopter. I looked at the specs on this machine and it seemed perfect. It was midsized, had set a Guinness speed record (with an average of 240.6 km/h) and could land virtually anywhere.
I arranged a meeting with Survey Drone’s chief pilot Wayne Floyd, who has a long history of flying drones including for the Irish military. He’s a quick-witted fast-talking drone pilot and certified trainer whose energy, enthusiasm and ‘can do’ attitude was a plus, and I knew he had the experience to follow through and actually do what he said he could do. We talked at length about how important transparency throughout the process would be and if we thought we could wade through the regulatory hurdles with the Irish Aviation Authority to make this flight a reality.
At the time we talked, there had not been a BVLOS delivery in Ireland. Wayne brought me in to meet his colleague Sam Barraclough. Sam’s expertise came from GIS services and traditional survey technology, but recently he and Wayne had been developing and growing the services at Survey Drones Ireland (a division of SISIrl). When we began to explore using their new Wingcopter drone to execute the delivery, Sam explained that their system was designed for carrying a large Lidar survey unit, and as such, was not really equipped with the necessary redundant systems that would be required by the IAA if we were going to get permission to execute this BVLOS flight. So it was back to the drawing board to find the right rig.
It looked like it wasn’t going to happen in the allotted timeframe.
I gave the bad news to Derek at NUIG but said we shouldn’t throw the towel in yet. As it turned out, it was the first of many ups and downs on this 9-month rollercoaster. A few weeks after my initial meeting with Wayne & Sam, they contacted me again and told me that they had spoken to the engineering team at Wingcopter and that they offered to join the efforts by supplying a drone specifically designed for drone deliveries. As it turned out, Wingcopter had been working with Unicef in Malawi doing long-distance deliveries for the past 3 months. We were back in the game!
April 2019 | Month 4
In mid-April, we began to get a better sense of what the IAA would require from us to allow us to attempt this #DiabetesDrone BVLOS flight. Wayne Floyd led the effort to plan the RAM’s (Risk Assessments and Mitigation Statements). These are the documents that explain in detail what the risks of the operation are, followed by our efforts to mitigate those risks. You can never reduce risk to zero, but you can work through how to reduce the chance of anything happening to such a point where it is acceptable to execute the operation. Creating these documents is an extensive effort and includes everything from how to prevent collisions with other aircraft, the safety of the public, landowner permissions, solar flare and GPS signal limits, and anything else you might imagine could happen.
Also, how would we assure connectivity with the drone over such long distance?
The Irish Aviation Authority required us to have constant data connectivity including very low latency for live video downlinks and telemetry over the 20km. Using satellite links was possible, but also very costly. So our second option was to leverage a mobile data LTE network if possible as our primary link, leaving the sat links as redundant backups. This meant we needed an additional partner.
Over the last four years, Skytango has developed a close working relationship with Dublin Smart Cities and I knew they had made great inroads into developing IoT networks. So I asked them if they could make any introductions at Vodafone Ireland. Once we explained the #DiabetesDrone project and goals, Vodafone stepped right up and agreed to support our efforts with their 4G LTE network. We arranged a group meeting and my thoughts were that now we could finally move forward.
Wayne, Sam, my co-founder Susan Talbot and I went into Vodafone to discuss how it would all work and we were met with our second obstacle on this journey to break new ground with drones. It was not a given that the signal strength we needed would work! The signal towers are focused on putting that signal on the ground, and nobody really knew how they would work with a drone flying as high as 1300 feet. Vodafone couldn’t guarantee their involvement until we could prove the drone had signal strength along its flight path.
So… more testing! Sam, Wayne, and the Vodafone technician Rob Kennedy began working with the IAA to find a place in the country where they could put a Wingcopter up in the air near a tower and actually test signal strengths at various heights. Vodafone fitted special equipment to sense signal strength within the drone and determined that the optimum height would be from 130 Meters to 300 meters.
JULY 2019 | Month 7
It was mid-July before we had confirmation that we could meet the stringent IAA standards for connectivity across the entire flight path.
AUGUST 2019 | Month 8
By August 10th everything was in alignment. We finally had positive tests thanks to Wayne, Sam and Vodafone’s engineer, Rob. We had the drone hardware (WIngcopter), the pilots (Wayne and co.), the network (Vodafone), our compliance and drone management software (Skytango), and the final piece of the puzzle was waiting for the IAA to say yes.
If you push the regulator, they’ll push back!
Regulators in Ireland actively resist responding to commercial pressure or deadlines when they are charged with ensuring public safety, as it should be. So no amount of phonecalls will hasten the process. A BVLOS (beyond visual line of sight) flight is something that, as yet, has no clear process in place here, so there were no simple forms to fill out. No way to just apply and get a sign-off. We were in new territory. Wayne led the charge throughout the summer months through many meetings and many revisions of RAM’s to get the approval.
We chose to believe that the IAA was on our side and wanted to champion innovation, so in early August we took a chance and began to book flights and accommodation to bring over the crew from Wingcopter for the week-long testing scheduled before the actual delivery flight to Inis Mór.
We only had a provisional sign off from the IAA and this wouldn’t change until two days before the scheduled flight which put everyone under pressure.
Flying in the face of superstition, we scheduled the delivery for Friday the 13th September.
MONDAY | Sept 9th 2019
Our Wingcopter crew arrived on Monday, 9th September. Drone Pilots Santiago Montenegro, Christoph Zechner, and Wingcopter engineer Julius Boes arrived in Dublin with their cases and their drones and in the case of Christoph – a healthy dose of jet lag as he flew in from Japan. This was a big deal for us all. We drove our caravan of vehicles across Ireland to the Gaeltacht area of Connemara, just west of Galway. Our first view of Galway Bay was sunny and full of promise. We drove to our accommodation in Carraroe, about 15 minutes west of the aerodrome in Inverin where we would be spending the week, and got ready for our first flight tests on Tuesday. We still had no final approvals from the IAA but hoped they were close.
TUESDAY | Sept 10th 2019
After a hearty breakfast on Tuesday morning, we began setting up our launch area in the empty parking lot adjacent to the Connemara airport.
One of the big issues at an airport is who is allowed to be “airside” or on their runways. Because we didn’t know how many people we’d have on a given day, we didn’t want to have to negotiate that paperwork, so we positioned our area in an unused section of the parking lot behind some ropes. This would become our exclusion area for launching and landing.
The gravel was much more packed than we’d expected. This prohibited the crew from securing to the ground the tarp that would prevent stones and dust kicking back up into the drone on launch. So we needed another solution. Utilizing our local fixer’s contacts, we found a fish processing factory nearby that was willing to supply us with some large pallets to build an elevated platform.
But the weather began to close in and the rain and wind we associate with the west of Ireland began punishing us. We abandoned testing when winds of 35 mph and heavy rain pushed us home early.
WEDNESDAY | Sept 11th 2019
As an American, September 11th is always a little poignant for me. It felt good for us all to be involved in an aviation project that has the potential to benefit others in a really useful and practical way and ultimately, save lives. Our plans for the day included getting the final approval and clearances from the IAA and initiating flight tests to check connectivity on the drone over the channel. But again, the weather was not cooperating. We continued finalizing the landing zone, and the Wingcopter team did a detailed inspection of the drone after its shipping from Germany. They discovered one propeller showed small abrasions and needed replacing, which they did and proceeded to test the spares. When a drone is flying BVLOS, everything needs to be in perfect condition. There can be no surprises and the margin for error is extremely small. This flight was primarily over water. I don’t need to spell out the consequences of a malfunction in a congested area – on this of all days.
We spoke to the IAA, and their senior drone regulator committed to attending our Thursday tests and the Friday delivery. However, while we had mission approval, we were still missing approval to close the airspace. We needed a TRA (Temporary Restricted Airspace) issued, and a NOTAM (Notice To Airmen) which was to come from another department within the IAA. These are what other pilots use to plan their flights and we needed to be listed to be safe. With only two days to go before we lost our team and the drone, we had still not completed a flight test and had no idea if the #DiabetesDrone project would go ahead.
Before we shut down for the day and in an effort to get some preparation done, the Wingcopter team executed an 18km flight by flying a 1.8km circuit 10 times. It took 15 minutes from launch to landing.
The Wingcopter is one of the most graceful drones I’ve seen in action. It fed not only the engineer in me with its function, but the artist in me with its form.
The first time I saw the drone fly, I was mesmerized. It launched and sounded like most large hovering drones. But when it transitioned into forward flight, it went almost silent. And it moved fast! The wind was blowing at 25 to 30 mph and had zero effect on the drone. My old octocopter would be working so hard in that wind it would fry the batteries. Actually – I wouldn’t be able to fly it in 30 mph winds.
THURSDAY | Sept 12th 2019
On Thursday the weather began to break. The drone regulator from the IAA arrived on site and we were finally able to begin putting the Wingcopter through its paces. Half of our team, Sam, Julius and Christoph, took the 10.30am ferry over to the Island of Inish Mór, the largest of the Aran Islands, to act as the secondary safety team. They would be on the landing site in the event someone needed to manually land the drone and would remain there until their return ferry at 5 pm.
The first flight was more exciting than it needed to be!
It seemed as though there was some interference with the GPS signal and the drone wasn’t as stable as it had been the day before – except in manual mode – which seemed to be perfect. The team determined that the most likely source of the problem was a video transmitter being used by the film crew. Every time the cameraman ventured near the drone and control stations, their transmitter seemed to cause problems. It was probably a poorly tuned or out of spec transmitter but the lesson learned is… if you’re going to fly a drone BVLOS, keep everything else away from it as you just don’t need the mystery of things like radio interference.
By 3 pm, the weather had cleared and the team were able to show solid stabilization modes, clear signal and good GPS. Wayne was able to execute a few VLOS (Visual line of sight) test flights out over the water near the airport simulating the crossing. Again, they flew 20km each time by flying a circuit with a 1km radius, each loop running nearly 4km in circumference. This was the first day I got a look at the payload pod. Even this was impressive. Inside this pod there is a temperature regulated box to hold medicine and samples.
By the time the second team returned from the island, we had still not received our NOTAM for Friday. Without it, there would be no delivery the following day and all the efforts and money spent would be for nothing. While we were confident we would get it based on all the feedback we were getting from the IAA, there was still a chance it could be denied and there would be no #DiabetesDrone project to speak of.
There are many departments within an organization like the IAA, and they all have a responsibility to ensure decisions are based on safety and merit and not any external pressure. We all understood that and have a deep respect for their role, but it’s easy to lose that perspective when you know you have all the ‘T’s crossed and the ‘I’s dotted and with failure dangling in your face. We really wanted that NOTAM!
We had been working with Connemara airport all week. Our flight path was over the sea and in some of the quietest airspace in the country. The emergency recovery boat (an IAA prerequisite) was ready to go.
“Who’d know if we went ahead and launched anyway“? Without proper permissions, as a team, we’d rather walk away empty handed than push through because we could. If you’re doing this for a living, it’s not only about doing the right thing, but the correct thing.
Compliance of every aspect was the lynchpin of the entire project, from a medical regulatory standpoint as well as from an aviation regulatory standpoint and doing anything other than adhering to that would have defeated the purpose.
The weather forecast for Friday looked like the best of the week, but we’d all go to bed not knowing if the #DiabetesDrone project would materialize.
FRIDAY | Sept 13, 2019 | D-DAY
Unlucky for some…but not for us!
The morning was clear with bright sun, blue skies and low winds. The final word came back from the IAA that our NOTAM was approved and issued the night before at 20:17. We had finally cleared all the regulatory hurdles and run multiple technical tests. Now, it all had to come together with the medicine on board.
I chose to go to the landing zone on Inis Mór with Derek. I’d seen the drone fly the day before, and I was excited to be present on the receiving end of this historic event. I joined the team on the 10.30am ferry and arrived at the Inish Mór airport around 11:50 am.
The safety team set up their workstation and opened radio comms to the shoreside station.
Listening to the team on the shore run through their checklists using the Skytango App and prep the drone was terrific. We could hear the drone power up and launch, and then we watched it on the telemetry as it began its journey across the sea. There were 10 people waiting in anticipation at the airport, Derek, Owen Treacy, the country manager of Novo Nordisk (the manufacturer of the medicine being shipped), the local doctor, a diabetic patient, and the airport staff. Everyone had the same niggling fear in the back of their minds that was never voiced for fear of making it a reality.
What would happen if the drone went down? Would there be anything to recover for the recovery vessel?
Thankfully, we never had to find out. About 8 minutes in, we got the word the drone had crossed the midpoint of the channel. This meant that any emergency or ‘return to home’ maneuvre would bring the drone to us, and not back to its launch point.
At 14 minutes, we were warned to watch for the drone. You could hear it just before you could see it, and at 13:30, the drone was identified inbound over the centerline of the runway, just as expected. It swooped in over our heads and did a large smooth arc to enter a landing pattern. It flew downwind and came around flying into the gentle 4mph breeze. When it transitioned to hover mode it made a loud pitching sound, and then went into a perfect hover.
As it began to descend on autopilot, I couldn’t help but notice it was the best landing of any drone I’ve ever seen. It was like it was on an elevator, one smooth movement all the way to the ground.
It touched down, powered down, and we’d done it!
I honestly couldn’t believe after 9 months of finding the right team members and working with everyone to help get over the challenge of the day, we’d done it. We’d flown the first autonomous BVLOS (Beyond Visual Line Of Sight) delivery of diabetes medicine in a regulated space in Ireland and possibly in the world!
As if that wasn’t enough when the doctor took the medicine off the drone, the team placed a blood sample to be returned to the mainland for testing into the pod. The nose cone was mounted and the drone launched itself back into the air, yawed northward and flew like a seagull back to the mainland, landing where it began an hour earlier.
The battery still had 70% power remaining and could have done the mission over again – twice.
This was (and is) a seriously efficient drone managed by a very talented group of people and the whole project, while it didn’t go smoothly from beginning to end, was an absolute pleasure to work on and will hopefully pave the way for other worthy BVLOS projects in Ireland.
About #DiabetesDrone Partners
NUI Galway is one of Ireland’s foremost centres of academic excellence. Over 18,000 students undertake an extensive range of studies at the University, which is renowned for the quality of its graduates.
NUI Galway is a research-led University with internationally recognised expertise in areas including Biomedical Science and Engineering, Web Science, Human Rights, Marine Science, Energy and Environmental Science, Applied Social Sciences and Public Policy, and Humanities, in particular literature, theatre and Irish Studies.
For more information visit www.nuigalway.ie
Further information on the #DiabetesDrone will be available soon on www.diabetesdrone.com
Vodafone provides a total range of communications solutions including voice, messaging, data and fixed communications to consumers and to small, medium and large businesses. Since 2011, Vodafone has expanded its enterprise division, offering integrated next-generation fixed and mobile solutions in addition to cloud-based platforms, IoT machine to machine services and professional ICT support.
Vodafone Group is one of the world’s leading international mobile communications groups with mobile operations in 25 countries, partners with mobile networks in 44 more, and fixed broadband operations in 18 markets.
For more information, visit www.vodafone.ie
Skytango is a drone operations management platform that was founded in 2015 by Steven Flynn and Susan Talbot. Steve was one of the earliest drone pilots to hold a commercial license in Ireland and quickly realised the problems when working with drones, clients and the communities they fly over. Skytango helps manage the Health & Safety aspects of drone operations across industries such as construction, utilities and media as well as improving transparency with real-time communication between stakeholders. Skytango streamlines the business workflow for organisations that want to embrace drone technology while maintaining regulatory compliance.
For more information, visit https://skytango.com/about-us/
Survey Drones Ireland
Survey Drones Ireland is a division of Survey Instrument Services (SIS). Survey Drones Ireland was created in April of 2018 to provide specialist training in the use of drones for surveying & construction purposes. SIS has specialized in the supply of high end Surveying Equipment since 1973. Shortly after its inception, Survey Drones Ireland became an approved IAA registered training facility, providing training across all types of drone operations, it rapidly expanded far beyond the surveying & construction industries
To date, we are proud to have trained hundreds of pilots in achieving their IAA licensing certificates, implementing drone workflows within some of Ireland’s largest surveying and construction companies as well as a number of state agencies. Our success has allowed us to invest in the very latest drone technology, software and training which has played a significant role in our level of involvement in this project and ensuring its success.
For more information, visit www.surveydrones.ie
Novo Nordisk is a global healthcare company with more than 95 years of innovation and leadership in diabetes care. This heritage has given us experience and capabilities that also enable us to help people defeat obesity, haemophilia, growth disorders and other serious chronic diseases. Headquartered in Denmark, Novo Nordisk employs approximately 41,600 people in 80 countries and markets its products in more than 170 countries. For more information, visit novonordisk.com, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube.
For more information, visit: www.novonordisk.com/
Starting a company in a small workshop and developing a cutting edge drone, this self-funded startup wants to inspire the world by aiming high and starting vertically. Following the German tradition of focus on quality, they use lightweight glass fibre and carbon airframes to create benchmark platforms that aims to get the best ratio between payload and take-off weight.
For more information, visit: https://wingcopter.com/