Delivering medications by drones

Friday, November 27, 2020

COVID-19 has changed the daily workflow of community pharmacies.

As essential services, pharmacies remained open when many other health-care facilities closed or shifted online, creating a surge in demand that overwhelmed many practices, especially in the area of medication delivery.

“To reduce in-person visits to the pharmacy and limit risk of infection, some community pharmacists are now completing up to three times more delivery orders than pre-pandemic,” Nancy Waite says, associate director of Clinical Education at the School of Pharmacy. “Pharmacists are working hard to keep up, but there is clearly a need for ways to increase our efficiency to meet this demand.”

team members

Alex McCalla (AirMatrix), Mary Lee (AirMatrix) and Nancy Waite (School of Pharmacy) after drone take off on trial day. Photo provided by AirMatrix.

A new project with AirMatrix, a Canadian company that specializes in designing skyways for drones, hopes to help with this. Partnering with the Region of Waterloo, AirMatrix will be working with community organizations to run trials of drone delivery services — in the School of Pharmacy’s case, this will include medication delivery by drone.

“We know that drone delivery is the way of the future,” Anthony Miller says, experiential co-ordinator for Co-op and partner on the project. “And we’ve been working to grow our engagement with health technology partners in the region. This was a perfect opportunity to provide our insight — insight on how pharmacies operate, on the needs of practitioners and patients — and to use it to meaningfully influence how a cutting-edge technological solution is developed.”

Reducing risk through flight and automation

Drone delivery of medications minimizes the need for person-to-person contact and has the potential to greatly decrease the amount of time and money spent on coordinating and executing deliveries, allowing health-care workers to spend more time on patient care. It would also reduce the number of vehicles on the road, providing an environmentally-friendly alternative to traditional delivery methods.

AirMatrix provides millimeter-precise route mapping for drones, with a traffic management platform to optimise and fly routes cooperatively with other drone traffic. The drone is loaded with medication and programmed on a specific route and does not require remote controlling by a human operator. 

To facilitate trial runs, Miller and Waite reached out to Becky Agar, vice-president of Hogan Pharmacy Partners, and Darryl Moore, a pharmacy owner and president of Hogan’s Pharmacy Partners Ltd.

“We immediately saw the benefits of exploring drone deliveries to our partner homes. Drones offer the possibility of contactless, traceable deliveries when a long-term care home needs a medication urgently. Hogans is always looking for ways to add additional levels of medication safety in the homes we care for,” Moore says.

The Hogans team recruited peopleCare’s AR Goudie Long-Term Care Home in Kitchener to receive a trial delivery.

“Innovating is in peopleCare's DNA," says Brent Gingerich, peopleCare’s Chairman and CEO. "In our 50+ years of providing exceptional care for seniors, doing things differently, embracing new ideas and early adoption of promising new technology has been the fuel that drives our vision to change the world of senior living.”

team members

Left to right: Anthony Miller (School of Pharmacy), Florin Perte (peopleCare), Becky Agar (Hogans) retrieving medications after drone lands. Photo provided by AirMatrix.

Members of the School of Pharmacy’s Technology in Pharmacy Student Network also attended the trial flights to support loading medications on the drones and to evaluate the medications’ condition pre- and post-flight. They also provided user experience feedback.

“This project felt like a glimpse into the future,” George Daskalakis says, club president. “It’s inevitable that emerging technologies like drone delivery will one day become the norm and as health-care providers — or future health-care providers — it benefits us to be proactive in engaging with companies that are doing this innovation.”

Future opportunities

With a successful trial run day behind them, Waite and Miller have big plans going forward. They will continue to collect data from the project and publish research papers on what they have learned so far and are collaborating with AirMatrix to develop new trial cases and devise solutions to some of the challenges and opportunities presented by drone medication delivery.

 “For us, this partnership has been an incredible adventure into the technology world,” Waite says. “The best part is that our collaborators at AirMatrix tell us that, for them, this project has been an adventure into the world of health care. We’ve been thrilled to partner with AirMatrix and the region to learn together and are excited to explore other collaborations in the world of health and technology.”