A firsthand look at the Eastern Shore’s medical drone potential

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EASTERN SHORE POST/CLARA VAUGHN Visitors examine a drone on display during a medical drone delivery demonstration event at Riverside Shore Memorial Hospital in Onancock last Wednesday.

BY CLARA VAUGHN, Eastern Shore Post —

Tangier Islanders and others living in rural parts of the Eastern Shore might not need to travel to pick up prescription medicine soon.

A crowd including Tangier’s mayor and vice mayor gathered last Wednesday at Riverside Shore Memorial Hospital to witness a demonstration of the medical drone delivery pilot program taking flight from Onancock.

“When you look at what we’re trying to do, it’s really (to) affect the lives of patients in our communities,” said Riverside Shore Memorial Hospital President Nick Chuquin.

“I couldn’t imagine a … better opportunity to be able to impact people’s lives in a meaningful way,” said John Vernon, co-founder and chief technology officer at DroneUp, the Virginia Beach company providing the unmanned aircraft for the program.

The Drone Medical Package Delivery for Improved Transportation and Better Patient Outcomes program will test drones as a way to deliver medicine to patients with limited transportation in rural areas.

During the demonstration, the drone hovered around 80 feet above the ground and delivered a mock medicine-containing package via a line, showing how the technology can be used to reach remote homes.

Companies already use the small, unmanned aircraft to deliver other goods and a partnership of state and local groups saw drones’ potential to tackle challenges to providing patient care on the Eastern Shore.

“Our team spends a lot of time behind the windshield going to places just to deliver things in some cases —  or in the case of Tangier, you’ve got to wait for a ferry to be full enough to make a trip over there,” said Sally Hartman, senior vice president of strategic initiatives at Riverside Health System.

Partners in the pilot project include Riverside Health System, DroneUp, the Virginia Institute for Spaceflight & Autonomy at Old Dominion University, the Virginia Innovation Partnership Corporation, and the Accomack-Northampton Planning District Commission.

They were awarded a $1.9 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation through its Strengthening Mobility and Revolutionizing Transportation (SMART) Grant program for the drone delivery project. 

“We thought it was a very practical plan to help solve these real problems,” said Elaine Meil, Executive Director of the Accomack-Northampton Planning District Commission, which submitted the grant application after VISA contacted them last year.

Theirs was one of 59 proposals awarded SMART Grant funding from a pool of over 300 applications and Virginia’s only recipient in the program’s inaugural year.

The Virginia Institute of Spaceflight & Autonomy will help oversee the project’s budget, benchmarks, and schedule, and assess flight paths and their potential impacts, said VISA Executive Director David Bowles, who is based on the Eastern Shore.

“Our charter is really to help grow the aerospace ecosystem both on the Shore and across Hampton Roads,”  Bowles said, pointing to the Eastern Shore’s “tremendous assets” that make that possible.

VIPC provided seed funding for the project and grant application. VIPC has supported other pilot projects using unmanned systems, including a program to deliver COVID-19 test kits in 2020.

“Together, we can really strike a fire for innovation and do something that hasn’t been done before,” said Tracy Tynan, director of the Virginia Unmanned Systems Center at VIPC.

The medical drone delivery project is split into two stages: planning and prototyping, and implementation. In the first, the team is testing and planning delivery of prescription medications by remotely operated drones. Stage two involves deploying drones from Riverside Shore Memorial Hospital in Onancock to deliver medicine to patients’ doorsteps.

The partners have been conducting tests and plan to officially launch the pilot program next month. It will start by delivering blood pressure medicine after Virginia Department of Health data showed the Eastern Shore has one of the state’s highest rates of hypertension.

“Blood pressure is much more controlled if you take your medication regularly,” Hartman said.

The trial will involve widening circles of delivery areas and last between 12 and 14 months, she said.

It could pave the way for drone delivery of medicine in other parts of Virginia.

“We are here today because Sally Hartman asked a question: Can we do this, do you think it can make an impact, and how can we work together to do this,” Chuquin said.

“Each one of our partners … jumped up and said, ‘Absolutely. We can do this,’’’ he said.

“It’s just been a great partnership from the beginning,” Hartman said.

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