Drone transports blood and cancer drugs between hospitals to reduce emissions

    (Northumbria Healthcare / SWNS)

(Northumbria Healthcare / SWNS)

An NHS trust is using a drone to transport blood samples, cancer treatment and other drugs between hospitals as part of a trial aimed at reducing delivery times and cutting harmful carbon emissions.

Northumbria Healthcare said the “innovative” four-month project would start on Monday, February 13 and take place at Wansbeck General Hospital, Ashington, Alnwick Infirmary.

Initially, it will carry a test flight of clinical supplies, prescriptions, blood packs and mail between the three hospitals, covering a stretch of about 50 miles along the east coast.

The flights will be extended if the initial trial period is successful (Northumbria Healthcare / SWNS)

The flights will be extended if the initial trial period is successful (Northumbria Healthcare / SWNS)

This will increase to 15 in May if the trial is successful, and the trust collects logistical data to assess the impact on patient experience, staff resources and environmental benefits.

The trust partnered with Apian, a business developed through the NHS Clinical Entrepreneurs Program to explore the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

The UK’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has given approval for test flights to take place from today until 12 May.

Couriers are commonly used to transport medical supplies between hospital locations, adding to the carbon emissions pumped into the atmosphere by cars and fans.

The area covered by the trust is largely rural and the drones are expected to reduce both delivery times and emissions.

The project will use fully electric aircraft, which can take off and land vertically like a helicopter before flying horizontally like an airplane by combining fixed wings with rotors.

The UAVs, managed by Skyports Drone Services, can carry up to 3kg of payload and have a top speed of 110km/h (almost 70mph).

The drones will fly along a route from Wansbeck General Hospital at Ashington up to Alnwick Infirmary and on to Berwick Infirmary.

The flights will deliver chemotherapy medication to Alnwick and Berwick Infirmary.

Return flights from Alnwick and Berwick will send pathology samples to Wansbeck. Other items that could be delivered include blood packs, prescriptions, medical equipment and mail.

Sir James Mackey, chief executive of Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust, said: “As an innovative and forward-looking organisation, we are always interested in exploring initiatives that could improve the way we deliver care to our communities.

“With the area we cover and the number of hospitals and other sites we manage, it’s vital that we have efficient logistics to get supplies where they need to be, and we’re always vigilant about our need to drive efficiencies and reduce our impact on the environment.

“Using drones could help us deliver important drugs and supplies in a better and smarter way, so we’re 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 logistics routes to Alnwick and Berwick are a key focus.”

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 much work remains to be done before UAVs can operate autonomously in non-segregated airspace, Apian has an equal and conflicting amount of evidence to collect on how on-demand delivery can directly impact healthcare as in our personal lives.”

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