Across the Indian Ocean, thousands of people in Africa have been receiving life-saving medicine, blood supplies and vaccines as part of the largest drone medical delivery services in the world.
Now, a trial is being conducted in the NT to see if drones can help address the unique challenges of providing health care to a stretch of land twice the size of Texas and dotted with remote communities often cut from civilisation during the wet season.
It is being called 'the bush uber': an Australian first trialling drones as the medical future for the NT's remote communities.
"At the moment when remote communities are flooded in, [patients] either can't get their diagnostics, they can't get their medicines, or they are airlifted to a central facility," associate professor Hamish Campbell said.
Leading the trial with a team of Charles Darwin University researchers, professor Campbell says that while there is currently little data available on the number of patient transfers, the costs are "astronomical".
"We know there are a lot of breaches, a lot of waste getting medicines into communities without fridges and such, so we are predicting a significant reduction in costs," he said.
"This is about improving health care and also improving the delivery of life-saving medicine, which has so far used up a huge portion of the health budget just because we can't access people."
The drones will have a flying range of up to 250km, with the first test flights set to take off from west Arnhem Land by the end of 2021.
Researchers are aiming to be regularly transporting medical supplies by July 1, 2023, and Katherine, in its central location to myriad remote communities is on the list of vital hubs.
"It is just a matter of getting [the Department of] Defence on board to clear airspace," professor Campbell said.
"We are envisioning air safety regulations to be a huge hurdle. We are starting in Arnhem Land purely because of the free air space."
Much of the world's population lives without regular access to essential healthcare services, but over the past two years, professor Campbell has watched that wide chasm slowly start to close.
"It has taken a couple of years for us to get to this stage," he said.
"But like we're seeing overseas and especially in places like Africa where this technology has taken off, we are expecting a lot of employment opportunities.
"This will take support staff in communities, we're predicting a large remote workforce... and places with good road access like Katherine are going to be vital."
The project, funded by iMOVE Cooperative Research Centre, the NT Government Department of Health and Charles Darwin University, is already being labeled a "game changer".
However, a number of logistical challenges need to be tackled first.
"The team at CDU will investigate the potential in using automated aircraft for the delivery of time-critical medical items to remote communities across the Northern Territory," CDU interim vice-chancellor and president, professor Mike Wilson said.
"Drones are already being used in healthcare in developing countries, however, we need to undertake research to understand where they can reduce costs and improve health care outcomes for remote communities in the Northern Territory.
"This partnership is the first of its kind and will be a testing ground for the application of autonomous systems into health care delivery across Australia."
Specifically, the researchers will need to ensure the drones can withstand the vast Australian distances, which are far greater than any other current flight paths.
The researchers will also have to adapt the technology to withstand the Territory's hot, humid and monsoonal climate.
Lee-Ann Breger, iMOVE's programs director and a specialist in transformational research and development, said she conceived the project to address the unequal access to care.
"There are about eight million people living in rural and remote parts of the country - that's about a third of our population living in places where getting life-saving medical supplies is not only a race against time, but also a battle against the tyranny of distance, harsh landscapes and unpredictable elements," she said.
"Regional communities face medical access and health supply issues. This doesn't have to be the case. We have the technology to put an end to this deprivation, especially in remote Northern Territory First Nations communities."
Ms Breger said one of the project's main goals was to create an efficient model so drone health delivery services could eventually be rolled out to other regional locations across Australia.
"We are looking at developing capacity and ways of doing things to ensure sustainability of this service beyond the lifetime of the project. It's ground-breaking and important work, with significant benefits for millions of people who live in regional areas," she said.
"Drones seem an obvious solution, a potential game-changer. In the not too distant future, if you see a drone flying overhead in the middle of nowhere there's a fair chance that technology is on its way to help someone or even save their life."
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