Medical supply drones, the future of medicine delivery?

15th February 2023
Harry Fowle

‘Medical supply drones’ sounds like a phrase used by the latest cutting-edge military force on the frontlines to bring aid to the riskiest of scenarios. These drones, however, are instead seeing tests over the calm rural skies of Northumberland.

A result of the NHS’ Clinical Entrepreneurs Programme, Apian has partnered with Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust to trial the use of UAVs to carry crucial drugs, samples, and other supplies between medical sites.

Approved by the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), the test flights will occur between the 13th February to 12th May 2023 commuting between Wansbeck General Hospital in Ashington, Alnwick Infirmary, and Berwick Infirmary.

With Northumbria Healthcare’s wide reach mainly encompassing rural patches across North Tyneside and Northumberland, the potential benefits of the service could be great. The use of UAVs for this purpose could result in improved efficiency, reduced delivery times, and well as cutting carbon emissions. The trial’s primary objective is to collect a variety of data on logistics, patient and staff experiences, resource usage, as well as environmental benefits.

Chief Executive of Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust, Sir James Mackey comments: “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. 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, smart 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 vehicles being used are fully electric, capable of vertical take-off and landing similar to a helicopter and horizontal flight similar to that of a plane, all achieved via a combination of wings and rotors. The drones, which are managed by Skyports Drone Services, have a maximum payload of 3kg and a top speed of almost 70mph.

The trial period will slowly ramp up the number of flights as it goes on for precautionary reasons. At the beginning of the trials only around six flights per day will be conducted, building up to a maximum of 15 flights per day towards the end of the trial if all goes well. These trial flights will carry and deliver chemotherapy medication to Alnwick from Wansbeck General Hospital in Ashington, continuing onto Berwick Infirmary. On their return flights, the drones will carry pathology samples from Alnwick and Berwick back to Wansbeck. Throughout the trial, other items will also be tested in transport such as prescription medicines, medical equipment, mail, and blood packs.

Dr Christopher Law, Apian Co-Founder and Medical Director, said: “This trial builds upon 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.”

These tests are a crucial step towards to future use of drones to support not only the NHS but also a variety of other sectors. With the NHS’ existing concerns regarding areas such as pressured supply chains and costs, UAVs could unlock a new angle to tackle these problems. Apian, not the NHS, are funding the trials hoping to demonstrate the utility drones can offer the service.

With these tests, there is an opportunity to show just what drones can offer when it comes to delivering critical medical items in a more effective and efficient way. In turn, it is also an opportunity to find methods to reduce costs to the NHS via automation, improve sustainability efforts, create new employment opportunities, and enhance patient care/experiences.

Northumberland Estates’ Senior Asset Manager, Anthony Cape, added: “We wholly support the use of drone technology to revolutionise the delivery of urgent medical supplies, especially in rural communities. Northumberland Estates is delighted to have supplied land for hub points in the desired areas, ensuring Apian and Northumbria Healthcare have a flight network for this trial to deliver essential medical services across Northumberland.”

CEO of Museums Northumberland, Rowan Brown, said: “Museums Northumberland is delighted to be supporting this ground-breaking initiative and assisting the work of our outstanding Northumbria Healthcare Trust in achieving better health outcomes for our community.”

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