This is the first medical drone delivery network set to take flight in the heart of England, potentially cutting waiting times for vital transfusions
Skyfarer, a drone logistics operator, is leading a consortium that includes telecoms giant O2 to enhance the UK’s pathology network by potentially speeding up patient response and sample turnaround times and make drone delivery of blood for lifesaving transfusions a reality. The programme, which will also focus on Covid-19 supplies, will create the infrastructure for a new drone delivery network, providing a quicker and likely greener form of medical transport across England.
Made up of O2, Skyfarer, Cranfield University, Phoenix Wings and unified traffic management solutions provider Altitude Angel, the consortium forms the first medical drone delivery network of this type in the heart of England, with plans to create a national infrastructure enabling same-day delivery with autonomous drones in the future.
The project has now received operational authorisation for extended visual line of sight operations (EVLOS) with an overweight unmanned aircraft system (UAS) from the Civil Aviation Authority, which gives the consortium the green light to conduct short-range flight demonstrations as part of the project. These will test the capabilities of drones for logistics, with technology trials taking place after Easter and delivery trials taking place in the summer.
The project is funded by Innovate UK, part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), and aims to pave the way for harnessing the power of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to revolutionise the provision of healthcare services and develop smarter, safer, greener supply chains that have no impact on road congestion and no increase in fossil fuel emissions.
This comes at a time when transportation accounts for 34% of the UK’s net domestic CO2 emissions – and when heavy goods vehicles make up 17% of domestic transport emissions.
There are 2.5 million units of blood processed and distributed in the UK every year – and more than 200,000 new blood donors are required to give blood every year across England to replace those who can no longer donate regularly. The consortium’s drone delivery system promises faster turnaround times on autonomous deliveries, which can be processed at any time and therefore provide a more reliable delivery service to meet supply and processing needs for hospitals and medical hubs around the country.
The delivery system will also aim to reduce waiting times for vital medicines and other medical supplies, with the ability to supply medicine to all-terrain and off-track locations. The consortium also hopes that the adoption of drone deliveries will upskill local workers and innovate the budding medical drone delivery sector.
O2 is working in collaboration with regulator Ofcom to support the six-month project by providing SIM cards that will allow 4G and 5G mobile devices to be used in the utilisation of drones for medical deliveries. This will allow for a safe and reliable real-time control mechanism, making it possible for drones to fly safely over long ranges carrying vital medical supplies.
Cranfield University is helping stage technology trials for the project beginning in May 2021, when flights will be taking place at the University’s airport.
These trials have also been made possible by Altitude Angel, whose Unified Traffic Management technology ensures that drones are able to share airspace with manned aviation safely and securely.
Phoenix Wings, a German drone manufacturer, is supporting the project by providing a drone with a payload capacity that can meet 97% of vital blood delivery requirements in England.
At the next stage of the project, the consortium will conduct a feasibility study and scoping exercise, which will inform the creation of a drone corridor where UAVs will be able to deliver essential supplies without the need for a human driver. The consortium aims to have fully operational routine medical deliveries taking place by 2022.
Elliot Parnham, Founder and CEO at Skyfarer, said: “A big problem needs a big team – to realise the potential of autonomous drones in medical logistics, our industry-leading partners bring world-class, innovative solutions to the problem of enabling routine drone logistics.
“Our future flight challenge project backed by UKRI will bring medical drone delivery to the UK and make a lasting difference to the capabilities of logistics within a nation. Skyfarer will set up the UK’s first medical drone delivery network with lifesaving potential.”
Derek McManus, COO at O2, said: “We’re delighted to be involved in this trial alongside Skyfarer and our other consortium partners, and hope the project will provide a blueprint for UAV-based logistics to be tested in other areas of the UK and around the world, placing the UK at the forefront of this fast-growing industry. This technology not only has the power to support the healthcare system and save lives, but also reduce emissions usually released by traditional medical delivery transport, helping to build a greener future for Britain.”
O2 is not the only UK operator to be exploring the use of connected drones to deliver medical supplies. Back in Februray, Vodafone announced that it was using drones connected to its 4G network to deliver medical supplies to healthcare centres in remote parts of Scotland. The skies being filled with drones on delivery missions is still a long way off, at least in part due to numerous logistical issues that need to be resolved, but their use in supporting emergency services could be just around the corner.
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