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Drones and The NHS

The Covid-19 pandemic saw working practices and how we did things across all walks of life change dramatically, which was felt even more so by our remote and island communities.

With Covid at the time causing a significant reduction in ferry transport between mainland Hampshire and The Isle of Wight, the NHS embarked in late 2019, on a pioneering drone trial, to overcome the logistical challenges of getting critically needed cancer drugs across The Solent to cancer patients, in a world first trial.

A trial researching the benefits of using un-manned aerial vehicles (UAVs) was launched by Isle of Wight NHS Trust, which saw two contenders take part in this ground-breaking challenge. This was not the first time that UAVs have been trialled to deliver ‘items’ across The Solent. During the mid-1930’s, mail was sent via rockets, with disastrous consequences and the trial was abandoned. Needless to say, that we’ve come a long way since then!

The challenges that needed to be addressed were those of, reliability, not only with the UAV itself, but the ability to cope in all weather conditions, the ability to deliver a meaningful load, within the constraints of UK airspace and the cost implications.

The first contender was Skylift UAV’s hybrid V44, as seen here.

The V44 is an electric, vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft weighing 85kg, with a wingspan of 5m capable of carrying up to 20kg of payload. Designed and developed by Skylift, who were selected by Apian to be the project’s drone operator partners. They were based at the British Army’s Baker Barracks on Thorney Island and flown by former RAF, Royal Navy and airline pilots trained by Flyby Technology.

Working closely with the Civil Aviation authority (CAA) Skylift had permission, in the form of an Operating Safety Case, to fly up to 2.5km from the pilot (VLOS) anywhere in the UK, within segregated airspace, and to operate beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS).

Being an eVTOL aircraft, it effectively allows for a direct inter hospital delivery service, along with it being electric, that there is no need for firefighting equipment at the hospital landing sites. With drug intervention being potentially time critical, the ability to deliver ‘door to door’ is a significant step forward in patient care. Each drone delivery replaces at least two car journeys and one hovercraft or ferry journey per delivery – saving carbon emissions and contributing to improving air quality for patients and the community.

It will also help the NHS become the first health system in the world to become carbon neutral. The first successful consignment of drugs to be flown as cargo across The Solent was by the second contender – a joint venture by the University of Southampton and Windracers.

This was also funded as part of Solent Transport’s Future Transport Zone, which saw the development of the ULTRA UAV, as seen here.

The Windracers ULTRA drone is a large, twin engine, fixed-wing platform with a carrying capacity of up to 100kg in a space around the size of an estate car boot. The initial operations were run carrying loads of up to 40kg. Being a large fixed wing UAV, it requires an airfield and runway, both some distance from the hospitals. Whilst reliant on an inter airfield service and a vehicle transfer at either end, the operation is effectively looking to run a scheduled service of up to 10 return flights per day. Working with the CAA, Windracers have been granted clearance for the drone to fly beyond line of sight with benign cargo. Now that the system has been proven, it is ready to deliver such goods as and when needed by the NHS on the Isle of Wight. The team is currently working with the CAA to extend the service to include the carriage of other types of medical supplies which will require further approvals. When the only other viable option of transporting vital drugs across The Solent is the ferry service, this provides a creditable alternative, with the size of the available load being a highly attractive consideration.

The trial proved the viability of UAVs to deliver, not only drugs, but other cargo to outlying communities around the British Isles.


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