Drone trials could slash delivery time of urgent medical supplies

Over five hours could be cut from the delivery of urgent medical equipment if a two-week drone trial is successful.

drone delivery
Skyports’ Wingcopter set for tests in Scotland (Image: Skyports)

Thales and Skyports are partnering on the drone delivery trial for the NHS in Scotland to support the UK’s COVID-19 response.

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The aim of the trial, backed by Argyll and Bute Health and Social Care Partnership (HSCP) is to prove the delivery of urgent medical cargo, such as COVID-19 test kits and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), between remote medical facilities by delivery drone.

UK drone delivery provider Skyports will conduct the trial and operate the flights using delivery drones supplied by Wingcopter. These trial flights will be planned through SOARIZON, which is Thales’ drone operations management platform.

This trial demonstrates the positive role that unmanned technology can play in our society and represents a landmark step to accelerate its adoption,” Alex Cresswell, CEO of Thales UK said in a statement. “We look forward to continuing to work collaboratively with industry partners, regulators and government to establish the UK as a world leader in this exciting new industry.”

Based at Lorn and Islands Hospital in Oban, the trial will consist of two-way flights between the hospital and Mull and Iona Community Hospital in Craignure 10 miles away on the Isle of Mull.

Most medical supplies and specimens are currently transported between the laboratory at Lorn and Islands Hospital and surrounding general practitioners’ surgeries and other healthcare settings by sea and road. This service will see delivery times cut from up to six hours one-way by ground transport and ferry to around 15 minutes by drone.

The two-week trial is said to represent a crucial milestone for unmanned aviation in the UK. Current rules stipulate that drones must be flown within visual line of sight of the remote pilot. To undertake these more extended flights, the project team has been in close consultation with the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).

Duncan Walker, CEO of Skyports, said: Our trial in Argyll and Bute provides an important short-term response to the current pandemic and lays the foundations from which to grow a permanent drone delivery operation across a network of healthcare facilities around the country.”

Thales and Skyports are working also within the CAA Regulatory Sandbox programme, exploring how regulatory approvals can be granted for more widespread beyond visual line of sight drone operations in the UK.