Medical drones set to take off in Top End

·2-min read

Scientists have teamed up with the Northern Territory government to investigate if drones can help deliver health care in remote communities.

It's hoped drones will also be able to drop off medical supplies and collect pathology samples from the Top End's 80 remote health clinics.

NT Health Minister Natasha Fyles says drones could potentially make daily health care deliveries to isolated communities that currently rely on fortnightly plane services during the wet season.

"If you're a community that's cut off this could be a quick way for a clinic to get pathology back into a regional centre to get information," she told reporters on Tuesday.

"This is an exciting project for the NT. It's the next step in medicine."

But first, researchers at Charles Darwin University need to test the financial feasibility of using drones and their technical capabilities in the Top End's harsh environment.

Spatial scientist Hamish Campbell said drones could lower the cost of transporting medical supplies to communities and improve healthcare outcomes.

"We know that integrating drones into health care is effective but we need to understand where drones are going to make a difference," he told reporters.

"We already have many sealed roads and CareFlight and patient transfer services, so there's already a really good transport infrastructure set up in the NT for remote communities.

"There's no point substituting an existing health care service with something that's more expensive."

Drones are already in use delivering medical supplies to communities in Africa but the NT presents unique challenges, such as long distances.

Problems caused by monsoonal rain, cyclones, extreme temperatures and humidity will also have to be solved by researchers.

They'll also have to navigate Australia's robust civil aviation regulations and negotiate with the Department of Defence.

The financial feasibility of the project may also be tested by the high cost of using satellites to communicate with the drones in areas where Telstra's 4G network doesn't reach.

The drones are likely be able to travel up to 250 kilometres and carry weights up to 25 kilograms with pilots stationed in regional centres, such as Jabiru in Arnhem Land.

But only non-pharmaceutical medical supplies that don't require prescriptions will be able to be delivered under Australian law.

The drones also come with a hefty price tag of up to $500,000.

The NT government and federally funded transport research group iMOVE have contributed $1.4 million to the three-year study.