How Aussie drones could stop COVID-19 spreading
Exclusive: Drones could soon be flying coronavirus self test kits and medicines direct to front doors thus removing risky human interaction and preserving stocks of face masks.
A Melbourne-based drone company is already operating tiny aircraft in Africa that are transporting COVID-19 test kits to remote villages and flying the samples back for testing.
Swoop Aero is working with the Federal Government and is in talks with the Civil Aviation Authority (CASA) in Australia and it hopes to get approval to operate in Australia by July.
The company says the infrastructure already exists and it can begin operating here within 72 hours of approval being given.
The tiny aircraft are capable of flying up to 130 kilometres to reach a health service or a patient and can then fly samples the return 130 kilometres back to a testing laboratory.
"It would work well with telehealth. You could talk to your doctor on a tablet and get a testing kit delivered, self-administer the test and then we would deliver it back," he said.
The company's CEO Eric Peck used to fly giant Hercules aircraft for the Defence Department but now his company is using tablet computers, operated from Melbourne, to fly drones that deliver medical equipment around Mali, in West Africa.
"We are planning to launch in Australia this year to support remote and rural communities," he said.
The drones can carry up to 10 testing kits or 20-50 vials of blood, Mr Peck said.
To prevent accidents with manned aircraft, the drones - which have a wingspan of 2.4 metres - have to fly below 400 feet above the ground, Mr Peck said.
"We're working closely with the CASA to rapidly progress approval to support regional communities," he said.
The company is also in talks with several private health care companies on Australia's east coast about using drones to help with COVID-19 management.
It is also working with chemist chains with a view to delivering medicines using drones.
The cost of a drone flight works out at around $10-$15 per flight and could be cheaper than using cars to collect medical samples from multiple medical clinics, he said.
A single drone operator can be in charge of more than one drone at a time.
Rural Doctors Association of Australia CEO Peta Rutherford said if the drones could fly 300 kilometres they may be of more use in Australia's outback.
Many regional towns in Western Australia, Queensland and the Northern Territory were 200 kilometres or more from each other so the drone may not be able to reach them, she said.
Self testing for COVID-19 could also be a problem because the test relied on getting a good swab from the back of the throat and up the nose and was "an unpleasant experience", she said.
"If you got a positive test that would be good but if you got a negative test back you couldn't rule out that you didn't have COVID," she said.
The test kits might work if a GP or nurse administered them and used the drones to fly them back to a lab for testing and this would be a huge improvement on the 5-7 day wait many in regional towns currently face for COVID tests, she said.
The company has already provided thousands of deliveries of medical equipment and tests for aid organisations in Africa.
Snake anti-venom, test kits for HIV, tuberculosis, measles vaccinations and COVID-19 tests are among the items transported.
"We've seen a massive surge in demand since February and we've doubled the fleet size because they've had a measles pandemic, COVID, TB, HIV, any samples taken by a health centre can be transported by our aircraft," he said.
Originally published as How Aussie drones could stop COVID-19 spreading