Proving the Business Case for the Internet of Things

First ship to shore drone delivery

William Payne
July 14, 2016

Australian drone specialist Flirtey has carried out the first ship to shore delivery by an unmanned aerial vehicle. The drone delivery was carried out off the coastline of New Jersey from the desk of a ship.

Disaster help charity Field Innovation Team commissioned Flirtey to carry out the flight which was designed to test whether drones could be used to carry human medical supplies into areas that might be otherwise inaccessible due to storms, earthquakes or other disasters.

The Red Cross and several United Nations agencies participated in the event, which also involved the New Jersey Innovation Institute (NJII).

Dr. Timothy Amukele, a pathologist at Johns Hopkins Hospital and pioneer in the use of drones to transport blood samples and blood products into and out of remote regions lacking health infrastructure, oversaw the deliveries.

The ship to shore drone flight carried medical supplies, which poses particularly challenges and issues of its own. Medical supplies frequently need special handling. Biological samples in particular can be highly sensitive to the way that they are transported.

Flirtey has already scored a number of firsts in drone deliveries. In July 2015, the firm carried out the first land based drone delivery of medical supplies to a rural health clinic in Virginia. That delivery of 4.5 kilograms (10 pounds) was carried out in collaboration with US space agency NASA, and involved flights from Lonesome Pine airport to the clinic in Wise County Fairgrounds.

In March this year, Flirtey carried out the first federally sanctioned delivery of medical supplies in a US urban area. The flight took place in Hawthorne, Nevada. The delivery was carried out completely autonomously, with the drone delivering medical supplies to a house using its own on-board computer and GPS tracker. On that occasion, the drone hovered in the air, and lowered the medical supplies carefully by rope to the front porch of the address.

The company has gained experience in Australia and New Zealand, where it has carried out a number of tests.

“Imagine a future where in the event of a natural disaster like Hurricane Sandy, Flirtey drones rapidly deliver emergency medical supplies, food and water,” Flirtey chief executive Matt Sweeny said. “This demonstration is helping to make that future a reality.”

"The use of this disruptive technology in supporting humanitarian and emergency operations is a major paradigm shift and significantly enhances the ability to support field medical operators and first responders in remote or otherwise inaccessible disaster sites," said William Marshall, assistant vice president for government and military relations for NJIT. "The data captured here will be shared with all of the participants, including the FAA, in support of the agency's ongoing research into the integration of UAS into the national air space."

The demonstration grew out of discussions last year between U.N. humanitarian relief agencies and FIT, a Utah-based non-profit that brings together experts from a variety of fields to come up with innovative methods to deliver aid and services to disaster zones, including medical aid and electricity to Syrian refugee camps and 3D-printed maps to emergency personnel responding to mud slides in Colorado. Denise Spell, president of Currant, Inc., a technology company based at NJIT's Economic Development Center (EDC) that develops disaster management tools such as mapping software, collaborates with FIT and suggested the New Jersey site.

"The idea was to hold what the FIT calls a 'do tank,' which means more doing than talking, to bring together humanitarian organisations and technology companies to brainstorm methods to use drones safely and effectively during emergencies without intimidating the people you're helping. Needs in these scenarios include collecting blood samples, delivering medicines and taking aerial photos of damaged areas," said Spell, who knew of plans by Cape May County and the Delaware River Bay Authority to develop a hub for UAS technology at the Cape May County Airport.

"It's pivotal that in disaster and crisis we look to support our relief efforts with cutting-edge technology," said FIT founder Desiree Matel Anderson.

Eight of the 10 largest cities in the world are coastal cities, and more than three billion people, or 44 percent of the world's population, live within 95 miles of the coast, according to the UN.

"Exploring new technologies and innovations, like drones, is one way that the American Red Cross can effectively prepare and respond to disasters around the world," said American Red Cross GIS expert Matthew Gibb. "The Drone Do Tank will allow us to collaborate with other humanitarian partners and understand the potential for emerging technologies."