Drones for medical deliveries

This project is researching how drones could be used to make medical logistics in the Solent area more efficient for the NHS; aiming to improve health outcomes and the quality of residents’ lives.

The Aim

Using drones for deliveries has the potential to substantially reduce the time it takes to get crucial medical test results and life-saving medicines to hospitals and patients in remote parts of the country.

Our aim is to research how drones could be used to make medical logistics in the Solent area more efficient for the NHS; aiming to improve health outcomes and the quality of residents’ lives. The project will also assess the extent to which a system of drone deliveries would be a practical, cost-effective, and viable logistics alternative for the NHS.

This project has been running since April 2021 as part of the Solent Future Transport Zone. In that period, it has demonstrated the proof of concept for using drones to transport medication from the UK mainland to the Isle of Wight. The work continues with further trials and research planned. The research carried out by this project will continue throughout the lifetime of the Solent Future Transport Zone (FTZ).

The poster below shows some of the unique selling points of the project.

The Journey So Far

Covid-19 Response Trial – Operation Vectis

During the Covid-19 crisis, the NHS approached Solent Transport and the University of Southampton to trial the rapid delivery of medical goods via drone to St Mary’s Hospital on the Isle of Wight during the periods when ferry services were reduced.

Together we carried out test flights across the Solent, successfully transporting benign medical goods between the mainland and the Isle of Wight. This resulted in a number of UK ‘firsts’:

  • First delivery of a NHS payload by drone
  • First point-to-point BVLOS flight of a fixed wing drone between two different airfields
  • First BVLOS flight close to a highly populated urban area
  • First BVLOS flight using next generation “masterless” avionics.

The trial was carried out with support from the Department for Transport (DfT) and Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).

August 2021 to July 2022

In 2021, Solent Transport conducted a trial to illustrate the use of drones as part of NHS service delivery. Working with Apian and Skylift, a number of flights were made from the UK mainland to St Mary’s Hospital on the Isle of Wight, testing the practicalities of transporting medication via drone. A large drone cargo aircraft was flown within a carefully designed and designated area called a Temporary Danger Area (TDA), which was approved by the CAA.

As part of these trials, King’s College London and the University of Southampton have completed research studies into the effects of vibration and temperature changes on the condition of chemotherapy medication. The University of Portsmouth has carried out multimodal modelling to research the use of both ground and aerial transport throughout the Solent region.

Outcomes have included being able to assess the effect of using drones on NHS service delivery, flight operations, transportation of medication and future applications.

Spring 2022 to Spring 2023

The Llanbedr trials involved testing the use of multiple drones and UTMs and a combination of manned and unmanned aviation within the same airspace at the same time. In July 2022, a proof-of-concept test was carried out in specially designated airspace in Wales with assistance from CASCADE. The data collected was used to develop a specification for the UTM, including the assessment of air risk and ground risk.

These trials also tested the automated handling of cargoes, in particular the loading and unloading of aircraft.

Next Steps

Research Trials and Flying Infrastructure

In collaboration with research partners at the University of Portsmouth and University of Southampton, we have conducted cutting edge research into drone taxonomy, the effects of noise and vibration on medical cargo, drop testing to develop a crash-proof container, and completed research and discovery into the design of a gust-proof drone called FTZ Airbridge. We have also assessed the automated handling of payloads.

We are developing an airspace sensor network to monitor aviation activity throughout region. The data captured by the sensor network will improve our understanding of the current flows of aviation traffic around the Solent and which will in turn inform analysis of air risk and help pave the way towards future unsegregated airspace.

We will look at the development and demonstration of protocols and procedures to maintain separation of crewed and uncrewed aviation.

We will then look to map potential sites based on suitability for drone operation, and trial more flights to assess their benefit NHS service delivery. We will also be looking to select a party to implement and deliver a UTM.

Going forwards the project will seek to establish a more practical method of ensuring crewed and uncrewed aircraft can operate at the same time safely and which can potentially become a permanent feature of the Solent region.

Further research into the classification of different drone types will be undertaken by university partners, taking on board lessons learnt from the noise and vibration testing.

Tender Opportunities

In order to develop and implement this project, Solent Transport is using a Dynamic Purchasing System (DPS) to source suppliers to participate in this work. The DPS is hosted on the Portsmouth City Council Procurement portal. If you would like to be considered, please apply to the relevant procurement lots for the “Solent Transport Future Transport Zone” DPS.