Medical supplies by drone to Scotland's remote communities set to take off

A project to develop the UK’s first medical distribution network using drones has secured £10 million in funding, with trials now set to begin.

A consortium led by AGS Airports, owner of Glasgow and Aberdeen airports, in partnership with NHS Scotland has been awarded the funding from the Future Flight Challenge at UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) with the aim of creating a network to transport essential medicines, bloods and other supplies throughout Scotland including to remote communities.

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.

The second phase will involve live flight trials and removing remaining barriers to safely using drones at scale within Scotland’s airspace.

The UK’s first medical distribution network using drones is being planned

Fiona Smith, AGS Airports Group Head of Aerodrome Strategy and CAELUS Project Director, said: “The CAELUS project is set to revolutionise the way in which healthcare services are delivered in Scotland. A drones 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.

“The second round of funding from UKRI will allow our consortium to undertake live flights and 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.”

Public Health Minister Maree Todd added: “This innovative project will help position Scotland at the forefront of drone technologies to deliver essential healthcare supplies to people more quickly and provide equity of care between urban and remote rural communities.

“It also demonstrates an effective industry partnership showing that when businesses, universities and public sector work together they can deliver for Scotland and outperform the competition, attracting welcome funding at this challenging time.”

Professor David Lowe, National Clinical Director, Scottish Health and Industry Partnership (SHIP), Scottish Government said: “The CALEUS project is an exemplar of the large-scale innovation projects Scotland is capable of delivering. Through the NHS innovation test bed infrastructure and by taking a ‘Once for Scotland’ approach, we can determine the viability, scalability and efficiency of the technology, and its potential impact across the NHS.

“This fusion of skills and knowledge is vital to accelerate the pace of adaption of innovative technologies and support our work to strengthen health and social care innovation in Scotland.”

Live flight trials will be operated by CAELUS consortium member Skyports. The UK-based drone services provider is an experienced operator of medical and dangerous goods cargo flights. The company was instrumental to early trial flights with NHS Scotland in 2020 and 2021, completing over 12,000 of flight hours in the region to date.

Alex Brown, Director of Skyports Drone Services, said: “The benefits case for drone operations in Scotland is clear, particularly across the public health sector. We’ve already demonstrated the positive impact drone interventions can have on individuals and communities, and we’re eager to kick-off the next round of flight trials with the view to soon be facilitating permanent drone deliveries to connect people to these essential supplies – wherever they are.”

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