Pilot Project Makes 43-Mile Ocean Crossing With Drone

A drone recently was tested to transport medicines from St. Croix to St. Thomas.

In a first for the unmanned aerial system (UAS) industry, Skyfire Consulting, along with Doosan Mobility Innovation Inc., the U.S. Department of Health (USDOH) and other collaborators made a 43-mile open-ocean drone crossing between St. Croix and St. Thomas.

The flight, which was carrying simulation vials as a surrogate (e.g. clinical diagnostic samples, vaccines, etc.) in a temperature-controlled payload system completed as an initial proof of concept for USDOH.

“In the past, during epidemics and following the 2017 hurricanes, the Department of Health had to rely on any means possible to transport critical health related materials. In some cases, boats had to be used when planes were grounded. While effective, these were not the most efficient or reliable transports following a disaster,” said Brett Ellis, public health laboratory director for the USVI Department of Health. “Being able to provide materials and results back to clinicians immediately will definitely help in terms of patient care, especially for emergencies.”

Drones have been trialed internationally in the past, but this test marks a critical milestone for domestic use of drones in public health. The concept was developed over the course of two years between the local health department and Skyfire, the country’s leading public safety and health UAS consultancy.

“The purpose of doing all of this was to enable the USVI Department of Health to provide more efficient services, test results and vaccines to the citizens of these islands,” said Matt Sloane, CEO and co-founder of Skyfire. “This win is a very important first step towards that goal.”

The team completed the 43-mile flight in 1 hour and 43 minutes on Doosan’s hydrogen fuel cell powered DS-30 aircraft. The tank had nearly 30 minutes of hydrogen gas remaining upon landing.

U.S. Department of Health (USDOH) and other collaborators made a 43-mile open-ocean drone crossing between St. Croix and St. Thomas

“This test was a great opportunity to prove the advantages of long endurance drones, and it’s really encouraging to see hydrogen fuel cell technology being used to help people,” said Doosoon Lee, CEO of Doosan Mobility Innovation Inc., a subsidiary of Doosan Group. “We will continue to collaborate with all of our partners at Skyfire, Ready H2 and Guinn Partners until we make this proof of concept fully operational.”

“This is an incredibly exciting day for all of us,” added Sloane. “As difficult as it was to follow the aircraft with a boat to maintain line-of-sight, I’m looking forward to next steps where we can do these flights beyond visual line of sight.”

This work was supported by the Association of Public Health Laboratories. Its contents are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official views of the, the U.S. Virgin Islands Department of Health or the Association of Public Health Laboratories.

Editor’s note: The time it took for the drone to make its crossing has been corrected. 

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