Drone trials seek to streamline time-sensitive medical deliveries, improve patient experiences and reduce carbon emissions.
Drones carrying key medical supplies will be taking to the skies of Northumberland from next week as the trial phase of an innovative NHS project gets underway.
Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust is partnering with Apian, a company which has come through the NHS Clinical Entrepreneurs Programme, to explore the use of Uncrewed Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) to carry chemotherapy drugs, blood samples and other items between sites.
Following a UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) approval process, test flights will be taking place from Monday, February 13, to Friday, May 12, along a route from Wansbeck General Hospital at Ashington up to Alnwick Infirmary and onto Berwick Infirmary.
Given Northumbria Healthcare’s large, predominantly rural patch across Northumberland and North Tyneside, using drones could reduce delivery times, make efficiencies and cut carbon emissions. The trial will collect logistical data and assess the impact on patient experience, staff resources and the
Sir James Mackey, chief executive of Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust, said: “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, smarter 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 project will use fully electric aircraft, which can take off and land vertically like a helicopter before flying horizontally like a plane by combining fixed wings with rotors. The UAVs, which are managed by Skyports Drone Services, can carry up to 3kg of payload and have a maximum speed of 110km/h (almost 70mph).
There will be six flights per day at the beginning of the trial, increasing to up to 15 flights per day at the end of the trial, delivering chemotherapy medication to Alnwick and onto Berwick Infirmary. Return flights from Alnwick and Berwick will deliver pathology samples to Wansbeck. Other items that may be delivered
include blood packs, prescriptions, medical equipment and mail.
Apian co-founder and medical director, Dr Christopher Law, said: “This trial builds on 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.”
A period of community engagement about this project is taking place alongside the test flights. You can take part in the online survey here – https://survey.alchemer.eu/s3/90531102/Northumbria-drone-trial
This trial is a critical step towards the greater uptake and use of UAVs to support the NHS to build capability into existing, pressured supply chains. Apian and not the NHS are funding the trial.
In doing so, there is the opportunity to assess and test the hypothesis that UAVs can deliver critical medical items as efficiently as the internet moves information.
This will help reduce costs to the NHS and taxpayer through automation, respond to the climate emergency (a critical undertaking for the world’s fifth largest employer and UK’s biggest single supply chain), create new local employment opportunities, and, crucially, allow for better patient care.
How often will we fly?
The Civil Aviation Authority has approved the following flight windows. Please note, these times are the maximum hours of flying approved. The project will only activate the airspace when needed.
- Monday: 9:45-14:15, 16:00-18:15 (6:45 hrs)
- Tuesday: 9:45-14:15, 16:00-18:15 (6:45 hrs)
- Wednesday: 8:45-14:45, 16:00-18:15 (8:15 hrs)
- Thursday: 8:45-14:30, 16:00-18:15 (8:15 hrs)
- Fridayday: 8:45-14:30, 16:00-18:15 (8:15 hrs)
- Saturday: no flying
- Sunday: no flying
There will be 6 flights per day at the beginning of the trial, increasing to up to 15 flights per day towards the trial completion date. Please see full details of the NOTAM.
What are the flight distances and flight times between the sites?
Wansbeck General Hospital to Alnwick Infirmary:
- Flight distance: 34 km
- Maximum flight time: 28 minutes
Alnwick Infirmary to Berwick Infirmary:
- Flight distance: 73 km
- Maximum flight time: 55 minutes
What are the characteristics of the drone?
We will be using the fully electric, vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) Swoop Aero Kookaburra III aircraft. The aircraft can take off and land vertically like a helicopter while being able to transition into horizontal flight like a plane by combining fixed wings with rotors. It weighs 17kg, can carry up to 3kg of payload and has a maximum speed of 110km/h. The drones will be operated by Skyports Drone Services, which was selected by Apian to be the project’s drone operators for this part of the trial.
Who will fly the drone?
The drones are autonomous but will be continually monitored by a trained safety pilot who will oversee the flight of the drone along the route. The pilot will be based at the command and control centre under conditions approved by the CAA.
Can the drone fly in bad weather?
As a general rule, we can fly in the same weather conditions as helicopters such as Helicopter Emergency Medical Services (HEMS). The aircraft can fly in moderate rainfall and up to 27kts of wind from any direction.
What happens if something goes wrong?
As part of gaining approval to fly, we have worked through scenarios where things go wrong and documented Standard Operating Procedures. All events will be recorded and reported to the relevant authorities, including the NHS, governing bodies and the CAA. Apian has overarching responsibility for the trial and will be on-call 24/7 to address any problems. Our flight route, procedures and equipment have been selected and approved by the CAA with the assurance that we have taken all the appropriate measures to ensure the operation is safe.
What happens if a package is accidentally dropped, or the drone malfunctions?
Approval by the regulator (the CAA) is subject to the submission of a robust safety case. There is no risk of the package being dropped as it is in the hold of the drone. The drone is extremely safe and the drone’s systems have passed CAA scrutiny. The drone has multiple redundancy systems onboard to remove any single point of failure.
How noisy is the drone?
During takeoff, landing and hovering drones are comparable in sound to a lawnmower. When cruising in forward flight under the power of the propeller, the noise is barely audible.
Is it safe to fly chemotherapy by drone?
Southampton University and King’s College London have researched the impact of drone flight (e.g. vibration and temperature) on redundant chemotherapy and found that the product remains stable throughout the drone flight. The project team will conduct validation flights in the first few weeks of the trial to gather the data necessary for the NHS to approve flying real medication destined for patients.
Are there any specific packaging requirements for the drugs?
Yes, the packaging must meet the requirements of UN3373 and Packing Instruction P650. In order to do so, we have partnered with Versapak whose water-tight insulated medical carriers adhere to the regulations governing the transportation of diagnostic specimens, providing infection protection and thermal insulation. The packaging selected has a higher specification than that used on current ground-based logistics. Chemotherapy spillage kits are located at every site along the supply chain.
Does the drone have cameras?
Our drones are not equipped with a camera by default. The drones may occasionally be equipped temporarily with a GoPro for validation flights and quality improvements in both logistical efficiency and airspace routing. No video content is retained
Who is the team behind this trial?
This is a joint effort between Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust, Skyports and Apian (the project leader).
Who is funding the trial?
This trial is being privately funded by Apian. No NHS funds are involved in this project.
Where is the base of operations?
The drones will be based at Wansbeck General Hospital as the hub, with Alnwick infirmary and Berwick infirmary as the spokes.
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