Uncrewed medical supply flights start trials in skies above Northumberland

Chemotherapy drugs and blood samples are among the items being flown by Uncrewed Aerial Vehicles from today (February 13, 2023) in the skies above Northumberland.

Apian UAV at Wansbeck General Hospital
Apian UAV at Wansbeck General Hospital - Apian

The trials are being carried out by Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust in partnership with Apian, a medical drone logistics start-up company that is funding the trial.

Following a UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) approval for BVLOS (Beyond Visual Line of Sight) operations in segregated airspace, the test flights will take place up until May 12 along a route from Wansbeck General Hospital, Ashington to Alnwick Infirmary and onto Berwick Infirmary.

Using drones could reduce delivery times, make efficiencies and cut carbon emissions. The trial will collect logistical data and assess the impact on patient experience, staff resources and the environmental benefits.

In a statement, Sir James Mackey, chief executive of Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust, said: “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.

“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.”

The project will use fully electric, vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) Swoop Aero Kookaburra III aircraft. The UAVs, which are managed by Skyports Drone Services, can carry up to 3kg of payload and have a maximum speed of 110km/h.

There will be six flights per day at the beginning of the trial, increasing to up to 15 flights per day at the end of the trial, delivering chemotherapy medication to Alnwick and onto Berwick Infirmary. Return flights from Alnwick and Berwick will deliver pathology samples to Wansbeck. Other items that may be delivered include blood packs, prescriptions, medical equipment and mail.

Apian co-founder and medical director, Dr Christopher Law, said: “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.

“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.”