Proving the Business Case for the Internet of Things

Thales and Skyports trial drone delivery of medical supplies

Steve Rogerson
June 2, 2020

French technology group Thales and UK drone delivery provider Skyports are trialling a drone delivery system for the NHS in Scotland to ensure necessary supplies are delivered quickly, efficiently and safely.
The technology will reduce the current journey from Oban to the Isle of Mull, which can take up to six hours one-way by ground transport and ferry, to around 15 minutes, while keeping front line workers safer.
The product of collaboration from Thales and Skyports, working closely with the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), the trials also mark a step forward in how unmanned technology can be used safely and securely.
The aim of the trial, backed by Argyll & Bute Health & Social Care Partnership (HSCP) – part of NHS Highland – is to prove the delivery of urgent medical cargo, such as Covid-19 test kits and personal protective equipment (PPE), between remote medical facilities by delivery drone.
Skyports will conduct the trial and operate the flights using delivery drones supplied by unmanned aircraft-maker Wingcopter. These trial flights will be planned through Thales’ drone operations management platform, Soarizon, which offers digital tools to maintain compliant and safe drone flying operations.
“Delivery drones are fast and reliable for vital medical supplies,” said Duncan Walker, CEO of Skyports. “Skyports is proud to assist the NHS in Scotland with their Covid-19 response, helping to provide the essential healthcare that people need in harder-to-reach areas. Our trial in Argyll and Bute provides an important short-term response to the current pandemic and lays the foundations from which to grow a permanent drone delivery operation across a network of healthcare facilities around the country.”
Based at Lorn & Islands Hospital in Oban, the trial will consist of two-way flights between the hospital and Mull & Iona Community Hospital in Craignure 17km away on the Isle of Mull.
As Covid-19 testing rapidly gathers pace in the UK, the proposed delivery service will help to ensure that isolated communities have access to tests, delivered in a fast and efficient way. Currently, the majority of medical supplies and specimens are transported between the laboratory at Lorn & Islands Hospital and surrounding general practitioners’ surgeries and other healthcare settings by sea and road, a long and complicated journey.
“Thales’ technologies are playing a crucial part in the response to Covid-19 both globally and here in the UK,” said Alex Cresswell, CEO of Thales in the UK. “This trial demonstrates the positive role that unmanned technology can play in our society and represents a landmark step to accelerate its adoption. We look forward to continuing to work collaboratively with industry partners, regulators and government to establish the UK as a world leader in this exciting new industry.”
This service will see delivery times cut from up to six hours one-way by ground transport and ferry to around 15 minutes, on-demand, by drone, bringing savings in terms of time and resource cost, as well as keeping front line medical and delivery personnel safer.
Answering the call from government and Argyll & Bute HSCP, in response to the Covid-19 crisis, this trial is the result of rapid mobilisation from industry as well as the CAA, local government, the NHS in Scotland and the UK Department for Transport (DfT). Argyll & Bute HSCP has been at the forefront of exploring with Skyports the use of unmanned aircraft technology, building on preliminary work with the Scottish government on the possibility of drone use by the public sector emergency services in Scotland.
The two-week trial represents a crucial milestone for unmanned aviation in the UK. Under current rules, drones must always be flown within visual line of sight of the remote pilot. To undertake these more extended flights, the project team has been in close consultation with the CAA.
Through this trial, the alliance aims to prove the long-term, sustainable viability of such services, bringing together regulation, government and industry to unlock the transformational potential of drones for society when used in a safe, secure and controlled way.
“I am delighted that Argyll & Bute Health & Social Care Partnership is again at the forefront in Scotland using new technologies to benefit our patients,” said Joanna Macdonald, chief officer for the partnership. “The use of drones provides real opportunities to improve services and will help enable quicker diagnosis for our patients. We are excited to be working with Skyports in the design of this new service.”
Thales and Skyports are also working within the CAA Regulatory Sandbox programme, exploring how regulatory approvals can be granted for more widespread beyond-visual-line-of-sight drone operations in the UK.
Once the trial has been completed, the team will continue to work closely with the CAA and the NHS to make services available in Scotland and across the UK to provide access to this technology to a wide range of organisations, in particular a number of other NHS boards and trusts.