Australia

Drones may soon be used to fly medical supplies to remote Australian communities

Former airline pilot Tom Caska knows what it’s like to be grounded. He has not flown an aeroplane since breaking his neck in a Far North Queensland kitesurfing accident in Cairns in 2013.
“I fell out of the sky from about seven to eight metres and landed on my head and snapped the C7 vertebrae,” the 40-year-old says.
“I fell unconscious onto a sandbar, and my kite surfing equipment pulled me into the water face down.
“Luckily, a good friend of mine, who was also kite surfing, saw it happen. Initially, he thought I was dead.

“He knew basic first aid, so he didn’t move my neck. He put me on my back and lifted my head above the water.”

Tom Caska was airlifted to hospital after fracturing his neck in a kitesurfing accident. Credit: Supplied Tom Caska

Mr Caska is not only walking again, he also cycles marathons despite plates holding his neck in place with carbon fibre screws. He has defied initial concerns that he might never walk again.

“I’m very lucky to walk away from something like that and have another chance to reinvent myself. But I had lost a career, so everything in my life changed overnight. And that was pretty hard to get through.”
During the long rehabilitation phase, Mr Caska took up drone flying.
“It is not flying a plane but it is still flying a machine,” he says.

“The aerodynamics are quite similar. A lot of the technology is like being on a flight deck.”

Tom Caska holding up his drone in a park

Tom Caska with his drone in Sydney Credit: SBS News / Sandra Fulloon

In 2018, Mr Caska took his drone flying one step further, starting a business called Aerologix with colleague Rakesh Routhu. The platform connects drone pilots to clients and is described on its website as an “Uber for drones”.

One of its current projects sees the company working with the Royal Flying Doctor Service and the University of NSW School of Aviation on a trial to transport high-value medical items across regional NSW.
“We are very excited about helping regional and remote Australia, with the transportation of medicines, vaccines and equipment using some pretty fancy drones,” Mr Caska says.

“We aim to start delivering medical supplies later this year, specifically to Indigenous communities in western NSW.”

We aim to start delivering medical supplies later this year, specifically to Indigenous communities in western NSW.

Tom Caska, Aerologix

Mr Routhu ran a drone business in India and migrated to Australia in 2018 to take up a Master of Business Administration (MBA) scholarship at the University of New South Wales, where he and Mr Caska met. Mr Routhu now lives in Brisbane and oversees the Aerologix technical team based in Bangalore.

“Aerologix uses deep tech to support drone pilots and customers. We also source and provide cutting edge technology to enhance pilots’ workflow and ensure accuracy,” he says.

Rakesh Routhu standing at a beachside park in Sydney

Rakesh Routhu in Sydney. Credit: SBS News / Sandra fulloon

The medical supplies trial closes a full career circle for Mr Caska, who began flying for Broome Air Services as a young pilot.

“We often flew medical supplies and pharmaceuticals to remote Indigenous communities in light planes, at a cost of around $5,000 per trip plus charter fees,” he says.

“So a drone delivery is a far more economical and sustainable way to deploy from a regional hub than sending a light plane.”

For the trial, Aerologix is importing commercial drones costing around $200,000 each from Germany. The drones will be based in Dubbo and can travel up to 250 kilometres in total for a return journey, reaching speeds of 140 kilometres an hour.
“These trips are too short for a Royal Flying Doctor Service but, at the same time, too far for an ambulance,” Mr Caska says.
These new drones are more robust than the cheaper recreational models, with a three-and-a-half metre wingspan. They can carry a payload of up to seven kilograms, making multiple drop-offs in one trip, Mr Caska says.
Dr Catherine Ball from the Australian National University says using drones to deliver medical supplies to remote communities can save lives.
“Imagine that you’re in a rural community and you’re literally hours away from the nearest nurses station or doctor. How do you get drugs, defibrillators or EpiPens to somebody that might need it really quickly?”

“Someone who is very unwell and is perhaps doing chemotherapy in a regional area may need antibiotics really quickly. So their doctor can just pop the medication on a drone and get it out there.”

Business partners Tom Caska sitting with Rakesh Routhu

Business partners Tom Caska and Rakesh Routhu. Credit: SBS News / Sandra Fulloon

Dr Ball says there are multiple applications of drone technology being tested in Australia.

“We have people trialling medical and blood deliveries across the Northern Territory.
“We have people in the Torres Strait using drones to look at coastal erosion and Indigenous rangers in Cape York using drones and artificial intelligence to identify rock art, which then gets mapped by a digital archaeologist helping to conserve it for future generations.”

Drones assisting farmers

Commercial drones can also represent a carbon-friendly way to open up the skies for a range of business uses, including farming.
Professor Andrew Robson from the University of New South Wales says during the current rural labour shortage, drones can save farmers time and money.
“If you don’t have farm labour, drones are a way to save your crop from disaster.
“Drones give farmers a specific view of their land, rather than driving across their property looking for leaking irrigators or tree death or pest incursions.

“Drones also capture imagery with a clear resolution – which can be especially useful during times of heavy rain and cloud cover when satellite information is limited.”

NSW RFS crews rescue people from rising floodwaters.

Drones were used to assist emergency services rescue people from rising floodwaters. Credit: NSW Rural Fire Service

During the recent flooding in Northern NSW, drones were used to assess damage in areas that were still too dangerous for larger aircraft or had limited road access.

“We were able to allocate some of our pilots and get the aerial vision back to first responders, where the helicopters couldn’t even get airborne because the weather was so bad,” Mr Caska says.
“We could assess how many roofs have been ripped off, how many people were stranded.

“Drones gave us high-quality aerial vision of the area, and they were essentially transmitting information back instantly.”

Tom Caska and Rakesh Routhu flying a drone in a Sydney park

Tom Caska and Rakesh Routhu flying a drone in Sydney. Credit: SBS News / Sandra Fulloon

The Aerologix online network now has 10,000 pilots across Australia. Many of those pilots lost their income during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“It was an amazing way to help the airline pilots through Covid when they lost their careers. And felt really good to give back,” Mr Caska says.
Aerologix takes between 20 to 40 per cent of the fees meaning drone pilots can earn between $80 and $150 an hour.

It was also recently onboarded into the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) digital sky platform, meaning both its Aerologix iOS and android apps ingests CASA weather updates, location-based information and maps that show where pilots can and can’t fly.

Tom Caska in the cockpit of a light plane

Tom Caska during his flying days. Credit: Supplied Tom Caska

Aerologix recently completed a $4.2 million funding round. Capital will be used to invest in additional research and development and expand the company’s commercial team.

Although Australian airlines are running again, Mr Caska says many pilots have continued to fly drones.
“We have quite a few airline pilots who might have five days off between international flights, and they are happy to put up their drone and earn some extra money on the side,” Mr Caska says.
And with plans to expand globally, for this business it seems the sky is the limit.
“We want to create the biggest drone ecosystem in the world,” Mr Routhu says.
“At the same time,” Mr Caska adds, “we want to find ways to give back to the community”.
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