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Drones to transport lab samples between two Ontario hospitals, a first in Canada

Some healthcare administrators in Canada are looking to the skies to move supplies and get lab results faster.

Halton Healthcare recently approved the use of drones to transport medical samples and supplies between two Ontario hospitals, Drone Delivery Canada (DDC) announced Thursday.

The new agreement between the hospital network and drone company comes four months after thenfederal transport minister Omar Alghabra proposed expanding drone safety regulations for such uses in Canada.

The drone delivery will follow a two-way transportation link between Milton District Hospital and Oakville Trafalgar Memorial Hospital, which are approximately 13 kilometres apart.

The drone, called the Canary RPA, will carry a variety of critical medical supplies between the two hospitals including blood tests and urine cultures.

Halton Healthcare and DDC’s contract began in September and is slated to run for six months.

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It is the first use of drones for medical deliveries between hospitals in Canada.

“By reducing transportation times and enhancing the security of medical samples, DDC is taking a crucial step toward more efficient and reliable healthcare services,” DDC said in a news release.

Improvements to hospital operations and patient care

Hilary Rodrigues, senior vice president of Halton Healthcare, said using drones to deliver medical supplies provides a significant opportunity to improve overall hospital services and patient care.

Without the limitation of traffic, drones are able to ensure the network’s primary Oakville labs get a hold of critical supplies and samples sooner than through other methods of transportation, Rodrigues said.

“Patients waiting for the results of their tests sometimes could be delayed because of transit issues. So, the sooner those vital results can be communicated back to the bedside, the quicker care can be delivered,” Rodrigues told Global News.

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2:19 Delivery by drone growing in remote areas before cities

The network’s lab turnaround times were greatly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic due to both a labour shortage and heightened demand, he said. Drones are able to fill some of those gaps.

“It’s reliable and quicker,” said Rodrigues, who is also Halton Healthcare’s corporate services and chief financial officer.

Since the agreement is essentially a pilot project, Rodrigues said the biggest hurdle currently is satisfying regulators.

“Right now we’re just testing these routes and we’re demonstrating to Transport Canada that these are in fact viable. The goal here would be that we would see in the near future (drone deliveries) being relied on and it would be commonplace and would be understood that it’s safe for people, for our community, and would help hospitals consistently.”

Recent regulation amendments

Alghabra announced the proposed Beyond Visual Line-of-Sight drone rules in June, as part of an amendment to the Canadian Aviation Regulations.

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The amendment allows for lower-risk operations of drones beyond visual line-of-sight, as well as the operation of medium-sized drones within visual line-of-sight.

Beyond visual line-of-sight refers to when the drone is beyond the operator’s direct line-of-sight.

The new rules are among the first in the world, a news release by Transport Canada says.

“These proposed changes would benefit Canadians as it would permit drone operations such as package delivery to remote communities, first responder operations, and natural resources and wildlife surveys to take place – among many other potential uses,” the release said.

Flying beyond can also be beneficial in terms of cost and efficiency, as it removes the need for resources on the ground.

The first set of drone rules in Canada was published by Transport Canada in 2019, for drones weighing less than 25 kilograms within visual line-of-sight.

Nearly 90,000 drones have been registered in Canada to date, Transport Canada says.

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Global News reached out to the current transport minister, Pablo Rodriguez, for further comment but did not hear back by time of publication.

Halton Healthcare and DDC’s project, which is assisted by Air Canada, successfully flew drones beyond visual line-of-sight in Phase One of the agreement. Phase One occurred last year and involved drone delivery of radioisotopes, which are used for diagnostic imaging.

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Radioisotopes are considered a dangerous good by Transport Canada. Receiving the qualification to transport dangerous goods was quite a significant milestone for the partnership, as it allowed them to begin this next phase of transporting lab specimens, Rodrigues said.

They are now working on gaining approval from Transport Canada to fly beyond visual line-of-sight for medical deliveries.

Drone possibilities are ‘endless’ says DDC CEO

The environment also plays a role in the benefits of drone deliveries, Rodrigues said.

“We’re concerned about the impact on the environment. A car running up and down like a taxi between the hospital sites is just clearly not efficient,” he said.

Drones emit 84 per cent fewer greenhouse gasses per parcel than diesel trucks do, a study published last year found.

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1:09 Canadian company launches drone deliveries to northern Indigenous community

Steve Magirias, CEO of DDC, said the ability of drones to fly over traffic creates “endless” opportunities. In addition to transporting medical supplies between hospitals, he said drones can also deliver to rural communities where access is usually more challenging.

In 2021, Stellat’en First Nation and the University of British Columbia conducted a year-long study that used drones to deliver medical supplies to remote communities.

Magirias said the project was “proof” of what drones are capable of.

“We flew over a body of water. Up in the underserved communities, whether they’re First Nations or any other group of people, I think the drones can bypass a lot of that through the air and deliver what’s required for those communities going forward,” Magirias told Global News.

In terms of concerns regarding drones flying over people’s heads, Magirias said “there’s nothing to be afraid of.”

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He noted safety features such as a parachute on the newest Canary drone that allows it to safely fly over people.

“Most people are concerned because they think the drones are spying on them or recording them. We’re a delivery company. We don’t have cameras that are actively recording or monitoring as we fly.”