How a remote island community is accessing medical support over the cellular network
Growing up on a remote island can offer a unique experience and perspective of the world. Just imagine your childhood-self exploring freely without the dangers of a busy city while surrounded by a community where everyone knows you like family.
For Faren Charlie, Health Director for the Penelakut Tribe, this was her childhood. “Growing up here is a really cool experience,” Faren explains. “It’s not a place where you need to be monitored or concerned about your surroundings, it’s a small community and it’s really tight-knit, there’s a real sense of community and family.”
Penelakut Island is a southern gulf island between Vancouver Island and the mainland Pacific Coast of British Columbia—and as you might imagine, it’s stunningly beautiful.
Faren left the island to pursue her education, but now works at the Penelakut Health Centre. “My role is to bring medical services to the community as well as program services with regards to mental and physical health,” explains Faren. “It’s been one of the most rewarding things to do: to bring my education back to the community I grew up in.”
Like anywhere, COVID-19 was a big scare for the Penelakut community. “Living on an island was really beneficial because we’re already a small community and everybody was already in their respective bubbles,” Faren recounts. “But trying to get services here is a bit tough, and our ferry is a deal-breaker for some people.”
Jeremiah Isaksen, one of two registered nurses at the Penelakut Health Centre agrees. “If everyone obeys the rules (we’ve put in place), we’re relatively safe.” In light of the pandemic, the ferry actually protects the community by restricting the majority of access to one port. “If we can funnel that and make sure that we're screening people appropriately and safely, it lowers the risk a lot.” But that protection can also be a hindrance. “You're bound by the ferry schedule, so if they're not running, you're not going anywhere.”
Seizing the opportunity to advance technology
Residents rely on the ferry system for more than just coming and going from their remote home. “When we need emergency medical services, we’re in a bit of a panic because we’re left wondering if we can get it here today or tomorrow—we’re dependent on the ferry,” Faren explains.
“If we need someone to drop off a test or a swab, we’re basically losing somebody for half a day because of the timing and when the lab closes.”
During the pandemic, the ferry was the only access to medical supplies, PPE and testing. The nearest lab is located in Chemainus, on Vancouver Island. “If we need someone to drop off a test or a swab, we’re basically losing somebody for half a day because of the timing and when the lab closes,” says Faren.
And the time cost can mean more than losing a nurse. As Jeremiah notes, “sometimes I'll have a lab specimen, whether it's blood or some other fluids that has a time frame where it can only be sitting out outside of the fridge for so long.” If the ferry is delayed, a specimen can be lost or a shipment of vaccines can spoil, potentially wasting thousands of dollars.
Among other measures taken to safeguard against the risks of the pandemic, Faren saw an opportunity to innovate. “It gave us a good opportunity to advance our technology and we were able to do things that we never thought were possible,” she recalls.
Exploring the possibilities of a cellular network
Philip Reece is the CEO of InDro Robotics, a Canadian company specializing in UAV and drone technology. Philip has been working with Faren and her team to meet their aspirations for a technology solution to the community’s logistical challenge. “Our technology enables us to carry items over reasonable distances, and we recognize now during COVID times, islands such as Penelakut are somewhat cut off,” explains Philip.
No stranger to the challenges of remote communities, Philip lives on Salt Spring Island. While geographically close to Penelakut Island, it requires two ferries and roughly an hour by car to travel between the two locations.
To identify if drone technology could help the Penelakut Medical Centre find alternative access to mainland supplies, InDro Robotics needed to assess the strength of the cellular signal in the area. “We were delighted to find out Penelakut had access to really strong cellular service and the service continued as we flew from Vancouver Island.,” recounts Philip.
“The Rogers LTE network really allows us to do so much more, so much quicker—without it, this mission would not be possible.”
Working with the Rogers team in British Columbia, Philip and his crew worked with Cradlepoint to leverage low-latency cellular LTE to enable the real-time video streaming required to run successful drone flights.
Using Cradlepoint’s NetCloud Service, Philip was able to monitor the cellular signal and create a service heat map of the flight path to optimize performance and safety along the drone’s route. “Once we completed this mapping, we were comfortable that we had communication through the mission and any alternative routes we might need to take,” explains Philip. “The Rogers LTE network really allows us to do so much more, so much quicker—without it, this mission would not be possible.”
Building on successful trial flights
Five members of the Penelakut community are training with the InDro Robotics crew with the aim to not only expand the number of qualified operators in their community, but to also extend training to others in the future. “The drone industry is rapidly expanding, and with the training we were able to bring to our community members, there are numerous avenues they could explore,” says Faren. “We’re paving the way for other remote communities.”
For the Penelakut Tribe, the return journey from their island to the nearest test labs has been reduced from 4+ hours to just 7 minutes. In the context of COVID, this advancement could save essential time to diagnose new cases and protect the entire community. Drone technology will also free Faren and her staff from a total reliance on the ferry, eliminating the need to tie up a staff member to escort samples to and from the lab.
“It’s an economic milestone for the industry… recognizing that drones have made that leap into commercial activity.”
The successful trial flights also bring the possibility for a new, reliable connection to PPE, medical supplies and vital data into view, which would help Faren and her team do their jobs even better.
These trial drone flights are the first in Canada to receive Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) permission and the first with air cargo. “We’re the first drone company in Canada to receive a CTA [Canadian Transportation Agency] license,” boasts Phillip. “It’s an economic milestone for the industry,” he says. “It’s recognizing that drones have made that leap into commercial activity.”
The sky’s the limit in a 5G future
Having the cellular network in place let Philip and his team hit the ground running, adapt their technology to meet the needs of the Penelakut Community and begin test flights sooner.
With the Rogers network as the backbone, 5G will enable new advancements for businesses and cities through, not just faster data download and upload speeds, but wider and more reliable coverage and more stable, simultaneous connections.
“InDro Robotics is a great example, which is a relatively small organization that has come up with an innovative application that can not only leverage the Rogers network but can also ride off the 5G platform down the road.”
“Investing in 5G technology is really important, especially for business,” says Rick Sellers, President of the B.C. region at Rogers. “InDro Robotics is a great example, which is a relatively small organization that has come up with an innovative application that can not only leverage the Rogers network but can also ride off the 5G platform down the road.”
InDro Robotics is now working with the University of British Columbia to push the boundaries of 5G capabilities. “Here [at UBC] we have lots of 5G experimental area, we’ve got huge bandwidth we can transmit through, and now we’re getting ready to fly drones in and around UBC operating like a mini city,” explains Philip.
4G was all about speed, whereas 5G shifts to real-time information and ultra high-capacity networks that present opportunities for businesses like InDro Robotics to develop solutions that make our world a better place. “To see a company like InDro pivot and evolve during COVID so quickly to solve a real problem—it’s exciting to see that kind of acceleration of a local tech company,” says Victoria Smith, Director of Strategic Initiatives at Rogers.
This breakthrough is also a great example of working together. “The Penelakut Tribe are a very strong and independent community,” notes Victoria. “It’s a really good opportunity for Rogers to put their network to good use and learn alongside this community to evolve technology to build a better country.”
Providing the network and reliability that Faren and her team are looking for to advance their technology and do things they never thought possible is the future 5G will enable. “I definitely feel a sense of pride that if this moves forward, we will be able to say we were one of the first communities to bring this to other First Nations communities,” says Faren. “And I think that’s a really cool legacy for our community to have.”