Behind the scenes during the UK’s first hospital-to-hospital medical drone deliveries

As the NHS celebrates its 72nd birthday, Head of Operations Alex Brown looks at how the NHS is embracing new drone technology to improve patient care for the future with a behind the scenes look at Skyports recent drone delivery trials to help the NHS in Scotland with its response to COVID-19.

Throughout its proud 72-year history of saving lives, the National Health Service (NHS) continues to innovate to provide high quality healthcare across the country.  Embracing new technology is critical to enabling the NHS to deliver even better outcomes for patients today and into the future.

The use of drones within supply chains can create significant time and cost savings for the NHS, and the COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the role that unmanned aircraft can play in keeping medical goods moving, limiting human contact and supplying hard-to-reach communities.

Answering the call

As the COVID-19  pandemic gathered pace in late April, Skyports and Thales galvanised its combined resources and expertise by answering the call from government for innovative ways to respond to the crisis.

Within weeks we were working with the NHS, the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), the UK Department for Transport (DfT) and government in Scotland to mobilise a drone delivery response that would enable the NHS to maintain a fast and frequent COVID-19 cargo capability between the Lorn and Islands Hospital in Oban and Mull and Iona Community Hospital in Argyll.

Setting the scene

The Isle of Mull is the second-largest island of the Inner Hebrides and lies within the Argyll and Bute administrative area of Scotland. It is a well-known island famous for its natural heritage and breath-taking scenery.

The island is home to 2,800 people and is served by three medical facilities spread across its undulating surface.

Onboard view arriving into Mull & Iona Community Care Hospital

The Oban to Isle of Mull journey is one taken countless times by many living in the Argyll and Bute.  The ferry service is seasonal, operating a more frequent service in the summer high season and less frequently during winter. During the off-season, the service experiences common outages as poor weather prevents the vessel from operating.

Oban to Isle of Mull Ferry

During COVID-19, only an essential service was operated, with zero to three services operating per day, depending on the day of the week.

In practical terms, if a hospital porter sets off at the right time on a Wednesday morning, they may arrive at the first Isle of Mull medical site within two hours. If that same porter needed to carry a medical product on a Saturday afternoon, they could expect a 36-hour wait until the next ferry on Monday morning.

When it comes to healthcare, this frequency and speed of transport can have a meaningful impact. The difference between someone receiving a blood test result on the same day vs three days later can be life-saving.

This is where Skyports comes in, ensuring that all people have access to timely and high-quality healthcare, regardless of their geographical location.

The Skyports solution

Deploying our drone delivery solution reduced the delivery time between Oban and the Isle of Mull to 15 minutes. We operated a service up to 12 times per day. This is a game changer for areas such as Argyll and Bute and allows the NHS to revolutionise its approach to healthcare logistics in rural areas.

Skyports drone taking off from Mull & Iona Community Hospital

During our two-week trials, our drones carried multiple types of cargo including essential personal protective equipment (PPE), such as masks, empty vials for transporting medical samples and COVID-19 testing kits.

Skyports personnel at Oban loading the drone with blood collection tubes bound for the Isle of Mull

The drones flew automatically along pre-planned routes which our Flight Operations team had carefully plotted using both Geographic Information System (GIS) data and on-site surveys.

Skyports drone first-person view mid-flight

Our Flight Operations team monitored the drones throughout each flight using our Ground Control Stations (GCS). These stations display the location of the unmanned aircraft, key telemetry information and live video streaming from the drone’s on-board camera, all sent through a secure communication link utilising both 4G and satellite communications (SatCom) connections.

Skyports Flight Operations Team monitoring the delivery drones mid-flight

One of our favourite stories from the operation was the drone being christened “Lorna” by a local medical professional after Lorn and Islands Hospital

“Lorna” in action post take-off from Lorn and Islands Hospital

Plans for expansion

This first hospital-to-hospital medical drone delivery operation in the UK is just the start, forming the baseline from which we are expanding our drone delivery operations across the country.

We are focused on bringing rapid, high-frequency medical logistics to more areas of the UK, particularly those living in rural areas facing transport connection issues. To achieve this, we are working with the CAA and other key stakeholders to create the regulatory frameworks and evaluation data which will allow us to move from proof of concept to recurring operations.

We will have some new announcements to come about the work we are doing with the NHS in the following weeks, which we are excited about sharing these. Skyports also looks forward to being part of the NHS story in the future, perhaps becoming a small, permanent part of its long, rich history when people look back and celebrate the NHS’ unique role in society over the next seven decades and more.

For any enquiries, please get in touch.