Exploring the potential of drone technology

Publication Date
Professor Boyd Robertson FRSE
Stephen Whiston
A man wearing a suit and tie smiling and looking at the camera
Professor Boyd Robertson FRSE, Chair, NHS
Highland Board in collaboration with Steven Whiston, Argyll and Bute HSCP

Since 2019, Argyll and Bute Health and Social Care Partnership (HSCP) has been at the forefront of exploring the use of ‘beyond visual line of sight drones’ to transport laboratory and Covid-19 specimens. In partnership with Skyports and funded by European and UK Space agency, we have been exploring how this technology can enhance NHS Highland logistic services.

This is a first for the NHS in Scotland and the UK and the interest in our innovative use of this technology has been international. As the pioneers, we are having to address all the challenges including public acceptability, specimen viability and transportation safety standards, Civil Aviation regulations for safe use of air space, user interface and staff training, as well as equipment’s resilience and live satellite tracking for audit and customer needs.

A group of people sitting at a picnic table
Skyports is a UK-first in conducting hospital-to-hospital medical drone deliveries to assist the NHS in the battle against Covid-19

Argyll and Bute is an ideal test environment for this technology with its remote islands and mountainous terrain. We have seven hospitals and 41 GP surgeries and we currently deliver blood specimens to labs in Oban, Inverness, Glasgow and beyond using road, ferries and air transport.

The latest phase of our drone transport project completed in May 2021 after operating for three months. The service operated between locations in Mull, Easdale and Lochgilphead, taking specimens to the hospital in Oban.

During the Phase 2 trial, Skyports delivery drones provided a frequent, on-demand drone delivery service, transporting both routine and urgent pathology samples, urgent medical equipment and medical resupply items.

In total, the drones covered a distance of 14,000km over 422 flights, transporting 1,660 diagnostic specimens benefitting 884 patients and removing 11,640 hours from the traditional logistics network workflow.

Uptake by the NHS practices was above expectations, proving the value of the service and its successful integration within the existing logistics supply chain. Drones are ideally suited to the transport of small, high-value and time-critical cargo. Payload capacities are currently small (5-7kg) to support direct site to site flying.

For the foreseeable future, drones will not carry sufficient cargo to facilitate bulk transport of medical commodities in a cost-effective manner, but their versatility will reduce the burden of travel for transport staff who frequently have to transport urgent specimens long distances. The lessons learned from the project have been recognised as essential to develop this new technology.

The Skyports trial linked three hospitals and a medical practice in the Argyll and Bute area of Scotland.

A final ‘beta’ test project covering six months and more GP practices and hospitals is planned to commence in August 2022.

We anticipate that this technology is here to stay and that, in future, we can expect to see drones undertaking transport of critical clinical supplies, removing distance and time as a barrier, and providing equity of access for some of the most remote communities in the Highlands and the rest of Scotland.

Professor Boyd Robertson FRSE, Chair, NHS Highland Board, co-authored with Steven Whiston, Head of Strategic Planning, Performance and Technology, Argyll and Bute HSCP.

This article originally appeared in ReSourcE magazine Winter 2021.

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