Drones in Arctic health care? Greenland pilot project now underway

The drone that will be used during the pilot project in Nuuk. Because batteries drain quickly in extreme cold, the type chosen for the Greenland pilot project is a hybrid fuel/battery model. (Courtesy A-techSYN)

Greenland has launched a project this month that will see drones ferry medication and diagnostic samples between the capital city of Nuuk and small settlements.

Falck, a Danish company that provides health, emergency and ambulance services, is working with the Greenland Health Service on the project and says the experience will lay important groundwork for understanding how the technology can be integrated into providing care to remote regions.

“There’s incredible potential here in this collaboration with the Greenlandic health service,” Nicolai Sondergaard Laugesen, development director and head of drone projects at Falck, said in a phone interview. 

“There’s a much different environment than in places like Denmark, Sweden and Germany and one of the reasons we wanted to do this project is to learn to operate in this kind of Arctic environment.”

 No one at the government could be reached for comment for this story, but in a statement, the Greenland health service said the drone project was an important step in better serving the island’s small communities. 

“We’re excited about how drones can contribute to our healthcare system and help citizens who live far from the nearest hospital,” Ella Skifte, the service’s chief nurse, said in a statement. “We’re currently working on ensuring a set-up that works well with the workflows and processes that our healthcare system has already built.”

‘Strengthening health efforts between settlements and cities’

The drones will be tested in the Sermersooq Municipality which includes the capital city of Nuuk.

A file photo of Nuuk, Greenland. Using drones may give those in Greenland’s smaller communities quicker access to medical resources in the capital, say health care providers. (Emil Helms/Ritzau Scanpix/ via Reuters)

There, they will run between the capital’s Queen Ingrid’s Hospital and the settlements of Kapisillit and Qeqertarsuatsiaat.

Kapisillit has a population of 52 people and is approximately 75km northeast of Nuuk and can only be reached by sea or air. Qeqertarsuatsiaat is approximately 130km south of Nuuk and is home to 169 people and is also not accessible by road. 

“Greenland’s geography and settlement pattern pose special conditions and challenges when it comes to citizens’ access to health services,” Gert Mulvad, the regional doctor and chairman of the Greenland Center for Health Research, said. 

“We look forward to gathering knowledge from the project, which can help strengthen health efforts between settlements and cities.”

Speeding up diagnosis and treatment 

Doctors in Greenland say the drones could play an important role in providing quicker access to the health care system and improved health outcomes.

“A faster course of treatment can ultimately be of great importance in more serious cases of illness,” Jesper Olesen, the senior regional doctor in Sermersooq Municipality, said. 

 “I look forward to seeing how the drones can contribute to reducing the experience of distances in our region and hopefully help to raise our health.”

A file photo of Queen Ingrid’s Hospital, Queen Ingridip Napparsimavissua, in Nuuk, Greenland. The hospital is part of the drone pilot project that runs until November 2022. (Emil Helms/Ritzau Scanpix/AFP via Getty Images)

Integrating technology into current system 

Because Arctic weather drains batteries extremely quickly, a  hybrid battery/fuel drone was chosen.

It can travel up to 500km and operate in temperatures up to -20C.

Laugesen said the trial period will be about more than just how the technology functions.

“It’s not just about if the technology works and can the drone get from point A to point B,” he said.

“It’s about how easily can it be integrated into the current health care system. Who is going to receive the drones in the villages? Who is going to receive them at the hospital in Nuuk? There’s a lot  you have to think about and the Greenland health service will decide if in the end what is best for them.

The drone pilot project runs until November 2022.

Write to Eilís Quinn at eilis.quinn(at)cbc.ca

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: New Canadian cancer strategy has focus on Inuit, First Nations and Métis people, CBC News

Finland: Finland’s elder care needs funding boost to meet Nordic standards: researcher, Yle News

Sweden: Drone delivery of Covid-19 tests being piloted in rural area of northern Sweden, Radio Sweden

United States: Indigenous students in Alaska get hands-on medical experience at nursing camp, Alaska Public Media

Eilís Quinn, Eye on the Arctic

Eilís Quinn is an award-winning journalist and manages Radio Canada International’s Eye on the Arctic news cooperation project. Eilís has reported from the Arctic regions of all eight circumpolar countries and has produced numerous documentary and multimedia series about climate change and the issues facing Indigenous peoples in the North.

Her investigative report "Death in the Arctic: A community grieves, a father fights for change," about the murder of Robert Adams, a 19-year-old Inuk man from Arctic Quebec, received the silver medal for “Best Investigative Article or Series” at the 2019 Canadian Online Publishing Awards. The project also received an honourable mention for excellence in reporting on trauma at the 2019 Dart Awards in New York City.

Her report “The Arctic Railway: Building a future or destroying a culture?” on the impact a multi-billion euro infrastructure project would have on Indigenous communities in Arctic Europe was a finalist at the 2019 Canadian Association of Journalists award in the online investigative category.

Her multimedia project on the health challenges in the Canadian Arctic, "Bridging the Divide," was a finalist at the 2012 Webby Awards.

Her work on climate change in the Arctic has also been featured on the TV science program Découverte, as well as Le Téléjournal, the French-Language CBC’s flagship news cast.

Eilís has worked for media organizations in Canada and the United States and as a TV host for the Discovery/BBC Worldwide series "Best in China."

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