A demonstration of drone powered delivery of life-saving medical supplies in NHS Highland could pave the way for this high-flying operation to be initiated in Sutherland to help beat Covid-19.
The unmanned fleet of drones took to the skies to ferry coronavirus tests and samples, medicines, and other much-needed equipment between medical practices in Argyll and Bute, a region which encompasses thousands of kilometres of coastline and several islands.
The project was supported by the European Space Agency’s (ESA) directorate of telecommunications and integrated applications through its ESA Space Solutions programme, which helps European businesses to “develop space-based ideas that improve everyday life”.
Drone delivery cut the average transport time in these sparsely populated remote communities from 21 hours using the existing road-based system to 60 minutes, enabling healthcare teams to provide Covid-19 diagnoses more speedily, which helped to ease pressure on overstretched NHS services.
Completed by London-based air mobility company Skyports in collaboration with the NHS, the demonstration could pave the way for a permanent unmanned aerial delivery network as early as 2022.
The project – which took place between June 2020 and May this year – was supported by ESA and the UK Space Agency as part of an initiative to accelerate the development of space-based solutions to COVID-19 and other pandemics.
It was carried out in partnership with the Argyll and Bute Health and Social Care Partnership (HSCP), the NHS organisation that oversees the area’s healthcare.
During the project, drones criss-crossed the region’s skies supported by space data. The drones flew pre-programmed flight paths based on coordinates and altitude levels provided by a global space-based navigation system, while telecommunications satellites enabled operators on the ground to constantly monitor aerial progress and take control if required. Earth observation data was used for topographical analysis and mission planning.
An online booking management system – developed by IT company and project partner Deloitte – enabled NHS staff to quickly request pick-ups.
Drones were dispatched from a hospital on the mainland to collect patient samples from three smaller medical facilities so they could be returned for analysis. Outbound journeys were used to deliver medicines, sample tubes, and test kits.
Arnaud Runge, ESA medical engineer and technical officer for the Skyports project, said: “This project provides more evidence of the fantastic potential space has for the health sector.
“Being also a commercial pilot, I am well aware of the challenges and regulatory implications of sharing a common airspace between drones and other aircraft. This makes the project achievements from Skyports even more impressive and it opens the door to a new range of medical drone-based services.”
Stephen Whiston, head of strategic planning, performance and technology at Argyll and Bute HSCP, said: “Removing distance as a barrier to obtain faster results improved the quality and speed of service to patients, it also supported our doctors and nurses by providing faster results to aid and inform their decisions on care and treatment of their patients in our hospitals.”
More information about ESA can be found at www.esa.int
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