Flying Doctors Soaring In The Field Of Cloud


shutterstock_47293711The Royal Flying Doctor Service has provided a fascinating real life case study for a successful application of the ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT) and ‘big data’ – terms that are bandied about so often these days. They shared their learnings at the recent Splunk data analytics conference in Las Vegas.

The Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) are charged with running Australia’s fourth largest aircraft fleet to provide medical services to most of the continent, especially in rural and outback areas. In these hard to reach locations, 63 RFDS aircraft flew over 26 million kilometres in the last year alone.

Based in Adelaide, Mr Ind, the IT manager for the Royal Flying Doctor Service’s Central Operations, is tasked with tracking those aircraft and maintaining the supply of perishable medicines. He covers remote communities dotted across 2.4 million square kilometres of South Australia and the Northern Territory.

The variability of climate temperatures, ranging from sub zero at thirty thousand feet to more than 120 degrees, makes the transportation of sensitive medical supplies safely a difficult task. Each crew must be “extra careful in maintaining the cold chain to protect sensitive medicines”. Previously, to protect those sensitive medicines, RFDS had data loggers to monitor temperatures, but this didn’t do much to warn crews of impending problems or store historical data for auditing purposes.

New devices, implemented by Mr Ind and his team, warn both the crew and headquarters if there’s a problem. Mr Ind stated “the good thing is the devices have a screen on them so that when the crew come to take the meds out of the bags at the destination, they get a flashing alert if the cold chain has been breached”.

Another challenge for the RFDS is tracking each aircraft across the vast distances and keeping track of tasks. There has not been a lot of real-time data accessible to staff showing where aircraft are.

Now, however, using an app called Flight Explorer that aggregates data from air traffic control and other sources, Mr Ind has the ability to generate reports on where aircraft are at any point in time. Using those reports allowed the development of an airport-style information board, showing the estimated arrival and departure times of each aircraft along with real time maps of where each aircraft were. This enabled support staff to plan more efficient schedules, with a quick visualisation of an operation’s status, so management also benefits from quick access to information.

After implementing real time tracking, the RFDS wanted to implement its Buy The Sky fundraising project that lets supporters ‘sponsor’ a slice of airspace. In return, the sponsor gets a notification by SMS or social media when a Flying Doctor aircraft travels through the area. Future plans include the use of avionics data to improve aircraft maintenance, fleet utilisation and benchmarking contractor performance.

In the longer term, the next generation of connected medical devices hold great promise. Once privacy and connectivity issues are resolved, new hardware will allow data to be downloaded via an iPad that has the potential to save data on the network from wherever the user is. This also presents the opportunity to eliminate paper reports.

The Royal Flying Doctor Service provides a strong examples of how organisations are using smart devices, data streams and analytics to improve operations, management and marketing. These insights are useful and important for the private sector.