Delivering critical medical supplies in the Scottish Highlands

In May 2020, with the world in the grips of the global COVID 19 pandemic, the SOARIZON by Thales team was working in partnership with drone deliveries provider Skyports, on a ground-breaking, first of a kind, medical drone delivery trial.

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Based in the Scottish Highlands, at Oban & Islands General Hospital, the trial’s main aim was to prove the feasibility of a drone delivery service transporting critical medical cargo (in this case, COVID-19 test kits and PPE) between the hospital and a remote community hospital on the Isle of Mull.

The 17km journey between the two medical facilities, which usually takes place by road transport and ferry, can take up to six hours and is undertaken two or three times per week. We proved that, by drone, the journey takes just 15 minutes and could be flown multiple times per day, with an on-demand service.

A service like this could be hugely beneficial for NHS patients in more isolated areas, for whom the drastic cut in delivery speed could improve waiting times and lead to quicker diagnosis or treatment. Drones would also provide huge benefits to NHS medical staff, who could rely on supplies and samples arriving far more quickly.

What’s next for drone deliveries in the UK?

While there’s been much media enthusiasm about drone deliveries in recent months and years, with large retailers like Amazon still taking aim at the market, the real acceleration is likely to be in the medical delivery space first.

With its rural communities scattered across a large geographical area, the west coast of Scotland is the ideal proving ground for drone delivery services, but this technology has potential to help on a far larger scale.

"This technology can have huge benefits, not only in the west coast of Scotland, but many places around Europe and the world, in those under-served places where transportation is hard. Where there's friction moving goods, because of geography or topography, (…) speed of delivery can have really life-saving consequences"
Duncan Walker, CEO, Skyports

With a number of UK medical drone delivery trials accelerated during the COVID 19 pandemic, both in the Scottish Highlands and the Isle of Wight, it will now be up to industry and regulators to work together to define a safe and scalable framework for this type of activity.

The Civil Aviation Authority’s regulatory sandbox is likely to play a large part in this, empowering industry partners to come together to collaborate, innovate and test projects, including Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLoS) operations, before working to commercialise on a larger scale.

“Drones are having significant strategic impacts globally, and the NHS and other Government organisations supporting nations can benefit greatly from this emerging technology." 

"This trial has proven tangible, real-world, value to the NHS, during its most challenging time in living memory.  We have proven that by working collaboratively with the Government and Regulator that BVLOS drone services can be conducted in a safe and secure method and applied to time-critical use-cases across a number of sectors.  We are looking forward to continuing to develop the service and capability to define future service.”
Karim Cosslett, Head of Growth, SOARIZON by Thales

Now that the inital trial has been successfully 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 innovative technology to a wide range of organisations, in particular a number of other NHS Boards and Trusts.

Feel free to reach out to us if you would like to know more or find out how we can support your organisation in similar ways.