A drone designed to deliver medical supplies including chemotherapy drugs and blood samples has completed its first flight between hospitals in the north of England.
The flight marked the start of a three-month trial, during which it will ferry supplies up to fifteen times a day between three public hospitals in the county of Northumberland.
A spokesperson for the organisation that runs the hospitals — Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust — told Forbes the drone flew successfully between Wansbeck General Hospital and Alnwick Infirmary – a distance of 21 miles, on Monday. The journey took 18 minutes.
He added no supplies were delivered on this “validation” flight, which involved a fully electric uncrewed aerial vehicle designed by aviation firm Apian. The UAVs are managed by Skyports Drone Services.
In the future, drones may ferry blood packs, prescriptions, mail and medical equipment between the sites. The Apian vehicles can carry up to 6.61 lbs of supplies and travel at nearly 70 mph.
This part of Northumbria relatively rural, meaning these flights have the potential to reduce the costs, emissions and waits associated with delivering supplies between hospitals.
Ahead of Monday’s flight, NHFT chief executive Jim Mackey said in a statement: “With the area we cover and the number of hospitals and other sites we manage, having effective logistics to get supplies where they need to be is vital, while we are always mindful of our need to drive efficiencies and reduce our impact on the environment.
“Using drones has the potential to help us deliver important drugs and supplies in a better, smarter way, so we are 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 logistical routes to Alnwick and Berwick are a key focus.”
A previous trial saw the company’s drones fly chemotherapy drugs between sites on the English mainland and the Isle of Wight.
At the time, Amanda Pritchard, the chief executive of England’s public health system – the National Health Service — called the project “extraordinary.”
She said: “Delivering chemo by drone is another extraordinary development for cancer patients and shows how the NHS will stop at nothing to ensure people get the treatment they need as promptly as possible – while also cutting costs.”
Unmanned vehicles developed by the University of Southampton were also used to deliver personal protective equipment (PPE) between these areas back in 2020.
Ahead of Monday’s Northumberland flight, 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 there’s still much work to be done before UAVs can operate autonomously in non-segregated airspace, there’s an equal and opposite amount of evidence for Apian to collect for how on-demand delivery can impact healthcare just as it has our personal lives.”
The trial is being funded by Apian, rather than the public hospitals involved.