Deutsche Telekom network supports medical drone pilot
August 26, 2020
The university city of Siegen in Germany and Deutsche Telekom are partnering to find ways of making possible drone flights for medical logistic purposes.
Because they need a mobile communications infrastructure, researchers invited Deutsche Telekom to become a partner in the on-going Kodrona project, Kodrona is an acronym for "cooperative drone technology for medical applications". The Bonn-based company is supplying a campus network that enables the drones to be safely controlled remotely.
The pilot project in North Rhine-Westphalia is investigating the use of unmanned drones in medical environments. The Federal Ministry of Transport & Digital Infrastructure has already funded the first phase of the project.
Transport drones fly back and forth in urban airspace between the DRK children's hospital and the district hospital in Siegen. On an approximately 2.5km long flight route, they transport medical laboratory samples of the young patients directly to the central laboratory. This way, the test results are available to the doctors much faster. Currently, the laboratory samples are transported several times a day by taxi.
The tricky bit is that the drone pilots cannot see their aircraft directly because the rapid transport of the samples through the air is done outside their visual range.
Up to now, the use of drones in the hospital environment had not even been generally permitted. And a permit is also required for the operation of drones outside of their visual range. This is to prevent collisions or dangerous approaches by a rescue helicopter.
However, new drone regulations in the EU open up more possibilities. For this reason, the Siegen project has already received special permission for the feasibility study from the relevant aviation authorities.
The pilot project in Siegen will now demonstrate how digital transport services for medical care can be set up and operated safely. Three hospitals, the University of Siegen and the city are working together with a drone manufacturer, a control room specialist and Deutsche Telekom.
"We have the opportunity here to work with new technologies and put them to work for people," said Dominik Eichbaum, project manager from the city of Siegen. "This also includes setting up the mobile communications infrastructure that supports the entire process. The drone pilots must control the aircraft via a secure mobile phone network and the drone control centre must be fail-safe connected to it.”
The aim of the joint project is to develop a prototype for the first time in a medical environment. It includes the development of a safe flight route outside the visibility of the drone pilots and the infrastructure for take-off and landing. This also includes the implementation of collision-free cooperative air traffic for transporting laboratory samples or other medical material between the hospitals.
The use of unmanned transport drones and transport containers is subject to applicable aviation and medical law. The drone pilots control the aircraft for this purpose via a secure mobile phone network at a flight altitude of 80m.
"Since the quality of the mobile phone coverage is decisive for the test operation, we carried out a real-time survey during the drone flight," said Thomas Runge, head of economic development in the city of Siegen.
Hagen Rickmann, responsible for business customers at Telekom Deutschland, added: "To ensure that pilots are allowed to fly the drones outside of their visual range, the aircraft transmit live images from a built-in camera to the control centre. This requires a high-performance network and low latency. A particularly fast reaction time of the communications network is essential for delay-free control."
The public LTE 4G network forms the basis for data exchange. Deutsche Telekom will commission a campus network that will be available exclusively for communication between the drone and the control centre. This will enable reliable data transmission even during temporary load peaks.
This means images and control commands are transmitted faster and support the safe flight of the drones. The campus network is implemented using the existing antennas. The Campus-Netz M product is used in the project.
In recent months, the use of drones has already been prepared within the scope of a feasibility study. The next stage now comprises a test operation under real conditions. This will examine the dependencies of drone deployment on the weather, integration into operational processes and official communication interfaces, and cooperation with other parties involved.
Subject to follow-up funding, test operations will start at the beginning of next year.
In the long term, a fully autonomous shuttle service between the DRK children's hospital and the district hospital in Siegen is planned for regular operation. In addition, the significance of 5G networks for such municipal applications is being investigated.