Lab Matters Summer 2020 | Page 32

PUBLIC HEALTH PREPAREDNESS AND RESPONSE Leveraging Drone Technology to Respond to Public Health Crises By Jill Sutton, specialist, Crisis Response and Tyler Wolford, MS, manager, Emergency Preparedness and Response Following Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017, the US Virgin Islands Department of Health (USVI DOH) faced many obstacles in providing essential public health services, including laboratory testing for public health threats. One of the biggest challenges for the USVI DOH is that their public health laboratory—located on the island of St. Croix—is also responsible for testing samples from the islands of St. Thomas and St. John, which are usually sent by seaplane or ferry. After the backto-back disasters, these transportation services were non-existent. A solution was needed to restore sample transport as quickly as possible and to ensure urgent samples could be transported between the islands on a more regular basis. In late 2018, APHL was awarded a $15.1 million cooperative agreement by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to assist the US Virgin Islands and two other jurisdictions respond to and recover from the destruction. Utilizing this funding, the US Virgin Islands assessed the feasibility of using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)— drones—to transport samples between the islands of St. Croix and St. Thomas. The goal of the project was to reduce the turnaround time for testing of public health samples. APHL contracted with Skyfire Consulting, an expert in UAVs, and in less than two months, the concept of sample transport using drones was put to the test. Taking to the Sky Prior to the launch, USVI DOH and Skyfire Consulting determined flight routes to identify potential hazards and outcomes, coordinated with local law enforcement and secured a boat to follow the drone between the islands to ensure it remained within the visual line of sight, a requirement set by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). On November 8, 2019, USVI DOH and Skyfire Consulting launched a hydrogen fuel cell UAV with a temperaturecontrolled compartment, across 43 miles of open ocean from St. Croix to St. Thomas. In one hour and 43 minutes, the UAV successfully landed in St. Thomas, proving that drones could safely and efficiently deliver samples between the US Virgin Islands and reinforcing their value for rapid sample transport. The USVI DOH will be requesting an FAA Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) waiver to obtain permission for transporting samples beyond the visual line of sight. This would not only help the USVI DOH overcome obstacles that impact sample transport, it would also greatly reduce the turnaround time for testing samples from St. Thomas or St. John, especially after a natural disaster. In the devastation following a public health crisis—whether it be natural disasters or a global pandemic—public health laboratories and systems operating in response will always face challenges that can influence their ability to maintain operations. Drone technology represents a unique tool to overcome some of these challenges. • Doosan Mobility DS-30 Hydrogen Fuel Cell Aircraft before take off on November 18, 2019. Photo: Amanda Sloane 30 LAB MATTERS Summer 2020 PublicHealthLabs @APHL