Drone delivery trials for northern UK

Medical drones are set to expand into the Northumberland region in northern UK, after the Civil Aviation Authority approved a pilot project to take off from February 13.

The Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust has partnered with medical drone start-up company Apian, to explore the use of Uncrewed Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) to carry chemotherapy drugs, blood samples and other items between sites.

The trials – which seek to streamline time-sensitive medical deliveries, improve patient experiences and reduce carbon emissions – will be carried out five days a week from Wansbeck General Hospital at Ashington to Alnwick Infirmary, then to Berwick Infirmary, covering a one-way distance of 107km.

Return flights from Alnwick and Berwick will deliver pathology samples to Wansbeck alongside other items that may include blood packs, prescriptions, medical equipment and mail.

According to a statement from Apian, who lead the trial project, there will be six flights per day at the beginning of the trial, increasing to up to fifteen flights per day towards the trial completion date of May 12 this year.

“Given Northumbria Healthcare’s large, predominantly rural patch across Northumberland and North Tyneside, using drones could reduce delivery times, make efficiencies and cut carbon emissions,” Apian said in the statement.

“The trial will collect logistical data and assess the impact on patient experience, staff resources and the environmental benefits.

“The project will use fully electric aircraft (they will be using the Kites made by Australian drone manufacturer and service provider Swoop Aero), which can take off and land vertically like a helicopter before flying horizontally like a plane by combining fixed wings with rotors. The UAVs, which are managed by Skyports Drone Services, can carry up to 3kg of payload and have a maximum speed of 110km/hr (almost 70mph).”

Taking place alongside the trials will be community engagements activities between the project operators and the local community, to explain how delivery drones work and answer all concerns that locals might have.

“This trial builds on Apian’s work in the Solent where we flew the world’s first chemotherapy and delivered the UK’s first prescription medicine by drone,” Apian co-founder and medical director, Dr Christopher Law, said.

“While there’s still much work to be done before UAVs can operate autonomously in non-segregated airspace, there’s an equal and opposite amount of evidence for Apian to collect for how on-demand delivery can impact healthcare just as it has our personal lives.”

Apian and its project partners feel the trial, which it is fully funding, is a critical towards the greater uptake and use of UAVs to support the British monarch’s NHS to build capability into existing, pressured supply chains.

The project proponents also believe delivery drones will help reduce costs to the NHS and taxpayer through automation, respond to the climate emergency (a critical undertaking for the world’s fifth largest employer and UK’s biggest single supply chain), create new local employment opportunities, and, crucially, allow for better patient care.

“As an innovative and forward-looking organisation, we are always interested to explore initiatives which may be able to improve how we deliver care to our communities,” said Sir James Mackey, chief executive of Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust.

“With the area we cover and the number of hospitals and other sites we manage, having effective logistics to get supplies where they need to be is vital, while we are always mindful of our need to drive efficiencies and reduce our impact on the environment.

“Using drones has the potential to help us deliver important drugs and supplies in a better, smarter way, so we are looking forward to seeing how the test flights go.

“We are committed to providing as much care as we can in our outlying communities, so logistical routes to Alnwick and Berwick are a key focus.”

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