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Drone delivers laboratory supplies in 43-mile ocean-crossing test for USVI Department of Health

In a test to improve delivery of health services between communities in the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) and its public health laboratory, the USVI Department of Health, Association of Public Health Laboratories (APHL) and other collaborators made a successful 43-mile open-ocean drone crossing last week between St. Croix and St. Thomas.

The flight carried simulation vials and other health supplies in a temperature-controlled compartment. While drones have been trialed internationally in the past, this test marks a critical milestone for domestic use of drones in public health.

“In the past, during epidemics and following the hurricane disasters, the Department of Health had to rely on any means possible to transport critical health-related materials,” said APHL member Brett Ellis, director of the Territorial Public Health Laboratory within the USVI Department of Health. “In some cases boats had to be used when planes were grounded. While effective, these were not the most efficient or reliable transport following a disaster.”

“Being able to provide materials and results back to clinicians immediately will definitely help in terms of patient care, especially during emergencies,” he said.

Without this option, responders were often forced to batch samples and wait for the next boat or seaplane which caused delays in potentially urgent clinical testing. The drone team completed the 43-mile flight in under two hours.

“Delivering timely public health services to island residents can prove challenging on a typical day,” said Chris Mangal, director of public health preparedness and response at APHL. “But it can be especially difficult during times of emergency. This test underscores the importance of finding innovative methods for strengthening public health laboratory systems and keeping our communities safe.”

Collaborators include Skyfire Consulting and Doosan Mobility Innovation Inc. The work was supported by the Association of Public Health Laboratories.