Drones could be delivering medicine to remote, rural Northland communities by March next year.
Medical Drones Aotearoa plans to begin trialling the delivery of medical supplies to Mitimiti, near Hokianga, in November and aimed to start its first regular service by March, pending Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) approval.
Medical Drones Aotearoa founder Robyn Kamira said about 14 per cent of patients in low socio-economic and rural areas did not pick up their medicines and even more rationed their medicines to make them last longer.
"The medical and crisis-support drone trials will lead to a high-quality, high-value service that will make a real difference to people's lives. We're focused on supporting communities that may otherwise be overlooked when it comes to deploying leading-edge technologies for services."
Those living in Mitimiti faced a relatively bumpy three-hour return trip to the closest pharmacy making it difficult for residents to access even basic medical supplies, Kamira said.
The trial would test drones, leaving from a few different launch sites, to deliver unrestricted medicine, such as Pamol, to the Mitimiti marae where it could be picked up or delivered by trusted community members.
Kamira said the company had already acquired the airspace to fly to Mitimiti to be used as a drone-testing space.
Between March and September next year Kamira hoped to extend the service to other rural communities near Mitimiti. From there she hoped the model could be transferred to other parts of the country which could benefit.
As well as being most in need of the service, the airspace around rural areas was usually less congested, making it easier to get CAA approval for the flights, she said.
The company was in the process of developing systems and protocols to ensure the medicines could not be stolen and to authenticate the safety of senders and receivers.
The trial would begin with unrestricted medicine that could be bought from pharmacies over the counter until the security systems could be proven safe, Kamira said.
The trial would include tests that explored the safe delivery of medicines and flights that were beyond visual line of sight and autonomous - with the ability for a pilot to take control of the craft remotely, Kamira said.
She believed the trial could have international effects.
Medical Drones Aotearoa was also looking to provide crisis support to emergency services by delivering aid to difficult to access areas and helping with disaster recovery and search and rescue.
The drones could also eventually send information to off-site medical teams and enable communication with patients.
New Zealand Medical Association chairwoman and rural GP Dr Kate Baddock said she believed the use of drones was "full of potential".
"The tyranny of distance is always an issue for people living remotely," she said.
"I think the role of drones in delivering is a great step forward."
Baddock acknowledged there would be issues around security with drones but believed they were not insurmountable.
Kamira is also chief executive of Paua Interface, the company which will manage the new 874sq km drone trial space in Northland called Incredible Skies.
It had been established as a commercial drone technologies testing platform and Kamira said she already had inquiries from local and overseas companies wanting to schedule trials.
The Hokianga airspace was away from airports and already had permission from landowners underneath the projected flight paths.