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Next phase of UK medical drone network launches

Alamy/DJI phantom drone flying

Next phase of UK medical drone network launches

A new network of medical drones could be used to treat cancer patients living in remote communities.

AGS Airports, owners of Glasgow Airport, has partnered with NHS Scotland to deliver the CAELUS project (Care & Equity – Healthcare Logistics UAS Scotland). The consortium secured £10.1m funding from the Future Flight Challenge at UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) in August 2022.  

The scheme aims to help NHS Scotland deliver a higher level of equitable care across urban, rural and remote areas of Scotland, allowing people who travel long distances or depend on rail, ferry, or air travel to stay at home while receiving treatment.  

Public health minister Maree Todd, provided the keynote speech at a launch event in Glasgow, along with speakers from AGS Airports, NHS Grampian, and air traffic control firm NATS.  

The audience was told by Hazel Dempsey, NHS Grampian's programme lead for innovation, how the drone network could revolutionise cancer treatment for elderly people living in remote communities. An example of a common form of cancer in 70 and 80-year-olds was used.

The illness is treated with a small injection that takes around ten minutes to administer, however, in preparation for medication, patients must be taken to a regional pharmacy, meaning they would need to travel.  

Getting the medication to people in remote areas by car is not possible in many circumstances, due to the way it is prepared. Someone in Moray, for example, would have to travel to Aberdeen Royal Infirmary, which is a four-hour round trip via private transport, for seven days in a row, every 28 days for as long as the treatment works.

A medical transport drone could reduce the time for travel and personal cost while keeping patients closer to their families.  

Since securing £1.5m in January 2020, the CAELUS consortium has designed drone landing stations for NHS sites across Scotland and developed a virtual model of the proposed delivery network which connects hospitals, pathology laboratories, distribution centres and GP surgeries across Scotland.

NHS Scotland has said it will bring its ‘Once for Scotland’ approach to the project, the second phase of which will involve live flight trials and removing remaining barriers to safely using drones at scale within Scotland’s airspace. Live flight trials will be operated by CAELUS consortium member Skyports.  

Fiona Smith, AGS Airports Group head of aerodrome strategy and CAELUS project director, said: “We were delighted when we heard we were receiving the £10.1m funding from UKRI to move onto the next phase of the project.

“The CAELUS project is set to revolutionise the way in which healthcare services are delivered in Scotland. A drone network can ensure critical medical supplies can be delivered more efficiently, it can reduce waiting times for test results and, more importantly, it can provide equity of care between urban and remote rural communities.

“As well as being able to undertake live flights we can begin to deploy the physical infrastructure needed to support the drones across Scotland. This will involve building prototype landing bases as well as digital and communication infrastructure. We will also work with local communities to ensure they understand why and how the drones will be used.”

Dempsey added: " We are incredibly excited to be the lead board for this high-end innovative project.  

"Our aim, from an NHS perspective, is to test the use of drone technology in urban, remote, rural and island landscapes.  We want to test if using drones will improve important aspects of our logistics service, for example, to test the transportation of laboratory samples, blood products, chemotherapy, and medicine delivery. Ultimately, we want to explore if drone technology can speed up diagnosis and treatment of medical problems.  

“This has the potential to improve services for those whose care is dependent on rail, ferry or airline timetables and help keep people at home where they can be supported by families and loved ones.

“This project intends to position the United Kingdom and NHS Scotland as a leader in the third revolution in the aviation industry."

David Lowe, national clinical director for innovation added: "This national, exciting 'next stage' programme of work builds on the success of CAELUS 1 launch which focused on the West of Scotland."  

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