The NHS in Lancashire and South Cumbria is set to pioneer the use of drone technology to deliver medical samples between selected hospital sites thanks to around £1.4 million in UK Research and Innovation funding.
One of 17 projects selected nationally, the work will see University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay NHS Foundation Trust (UHMBT) and Lancashire Teaching Hospitals (LTH) NHS Foundation Trust (LHTr) teaming up with local enterprises.
Selected as part of the government’s Future Flight Challenge, the two-phase trial will first see medical samples being transported between the Royal Lancaster Infirmary (RLI), Westmorland General and Furness General Hospital (FGH) before simulating the potential expansion to Royal Preston Hospital.
The electric drones will cut the delivery times between the hospitals across Morecambe Bay by over an hour, optimising the operation of pathology labs, meaning that patients and clinicians will have access to results faster.
Currently samples travel between the hospitals by van several times a day, so the new technology sets out to reduce the carbon footprint as part of the health service’s wider green agenda.
The drones, developed by UK company SkyLift UAV, will operate specific routes across the bay between the hospitals for a trial period of 90 days and will fly almost silently in their own dedicated airspace at 250 feet above ground level, thanks to support from the Civil Aviation Authority and co-operation from large private sector organisations.
UHMBT chief allied health professional and healthcare scientist Tony Crick said: “Drones deliver lifesaving defibrillators to those ‘on scene’ first helping heart attack victims in Sweden, also delivering urgent medical supplies and equipment in Rwanda and Ghana.
“They are instead part of the modern range of equipment available to UHMBT and LHTr to operate in a more efficient and effective way.”
UHMBT director of corporate affairs Phil Woodford added: “It typically takes anything from 60-90 minutes to drive a van between the RLI and FGH, whilst spewing out pollutants that damage the atmosphere and our health.
“Therefore, travel time door to door by drone will be achieved in around 15-20 minutes, slashing the normal time by up to 70%. It also has the potential to aid clinical decision making with the removal of unnecessary transport delays.”
LTH clinical director for pathology Professor Anthony Rowbottom MBE continued: “This important project will revolutionise deliveries across a specific part of Lancashire and South Cumbria and provide valuable insight into how this can be expanded across a larger pathology partnership network.
“Not only will this expedite the transfer of patient samples but could provide scope for branching into other NHS services, and in the long-term aspire towards potentially extending drone use to home delivery for patients.”
Future Flight Challenge director Gary Cutts concluded: “From cutting the length of time someone waits for medicine to arrive, to supplying greener ways to travel, the 17 projects we have selected will deliver real benefits to people across the UK.”
In February 2021, Argyll and Bute Health and Social Care Partnership (HSCP) partnered with Skyports to use drones to transport COVID-19 test samples and other medical supplies between remote locations in the west of Scotland.