May 12, 2021

“Call the drone” – delivering for the NHS

As our three-month COVID-19 response project has come to an end, Skyports‘ Director of Drone Services Alex Brown, reflects on the success of Skyports’ latest UK National Health Service (NHS) drone delivery work.

Real world benefits

Funded by the European and UK Space Agencies, and in collaboration with Deloitte and Vodafone, Skyports has been transporting COVID-19 tests, pathology samples and medicine up to 50 miles between NHS medical facilities in the Argyll & Bute region of rural Scotland.

The headline statistics from the 90-day operation paint a picture of success for Skyports’ latest phase of drone deliveries:

  • 12,000 hours of COVID-19 and pathology waiting and transport time saved
  • 900 patients served
  • 14,000 Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) kilometres flown
A computer generated image of flowers in the ground.

The time savings we made represent real-life benefits for the NHS and patients. Treatment started sooner. Unnecessary treatment was avoided. Patient “what if†anxiety was relieved. Isolation could commence more quickly. People could see family again.

It could be up to 1 or 2 days (to transport pathology samples via van). With the drones you can get it off an island within half an hour, and we can turn results around within two hours.

Caroline Henderson, Rural General Hospital Manager, Lorn & Islands Hospital

Timesaving is lifesaving

The figures only tell half the story. Throughout our operation, healthcare professionals across all four medical facilities served have been sharing their stories of how our drone delivery service has improved their ways of working and improved patient care.

During one afternoon, one local patient had pathology tests performed after the van that usually transports samples from site-to-site had already been and gone. In a normal world, the patient’s samples would have sat at the practice overnight until the porter arrived the next day – likely a 24-hour delay for the patient to receive their results and treatment to start.

In a drone-enabled world it’s a different story. An urgent delivery was requested, with a drone landing minutes after the samples were taken. The pathology samples were flown to the main path lab at Oban hospital, analysed, and results provided back to the GP within a couple of hours. In this case, the pathology test results revealed an illness requiring immediate treatment and critical medicine was provided to the patient.

In situations such as this, timesaving is lifesaving.

The samples get picked up, sent across, and we can have the results even before the patient arrives [for treatment].

Dr Gordon Caldwell, Consultant Physician & Clinical Lead

Setting the scene for the future

Our delivery drones, provided by leading technology provider Swoop Aero, flew over 14,000km BVLOS during the three months. This is an impressive feat which has not been achieved by many other organisations across the world. These flights generate real-world data and insights which are being used by Skyports, the NHS and the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to improve how drones can safely benefit society in the future.

For drone logistics services like ours to be successful in the long term, we need acceptance from the communities they serve. In our experience, drone delivery is accepted very quickly, with local people forgetting that the service is even there. And this is how it should be: a service that people can rely on without interference in their everyday lives.

A computer generated image of flowers in the ground.

Ultimately, drone delivery, while a relatively new technology, is just a way of moving things around in a more effective manner. The drones rapidly became a normal way of life, with the phrase “call the drone†entering the day-to-day NHS lexicon.

People are very supportive of it, anything that will help and improve patient care, they’re on-board with it.

Dr Miranda Barkham, Easdale Medical Practice

The drones we use are vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) drones and are best-in-class technology. Noise is low. Only a small amount of noise is heard upon take-off and landing, and they are unable to be heard when flying. We are also working with our technology providers to further reduce this noise profile.

It’s also important to integrate with and respect the hugely important role of other airspace users in the area. The Scottish Ambulance Service (SAS), for example, has been serving the citizens of Scotland with its helicopters since 2013 and on average responds to one time-critical emergency call out every day. We have been working closely with SAS and its air operators to guarantee that if they need to enter our area of operations at short notice, they can do so freely and safely for their lifesaving work to continue unimpeded.

What’s next? Scale up our pick ups

We’re just getting started. We have shown with this phase of work that there is a clear benefit in implementing drone deliveries into rural communities. We are now moving into our next phase of work in partnership with the NHS to scale up drone delivery operations across medical supply chains.