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September 13, 2022updated 14 Sep 2022 11:02am

Not ready for take-off? NHS drone trials could be short-lived

Though the NHS has launched a flurry of drone pilots, the projects are heavily reliant on research funding.

By Sophia Waterfield

Two further NHS drone trials have been announced by NHS England and NHS Scotland this week, as the health service continues to invest in the potential of unmanned aerial vehicles. However, an expert has questioned the long-term value of drones in healthcare, and believes a stronger use case needs to be made for the technology if it is to make it out of the pilot stage.

NHS drone pilots are being launched by a number of NHS Trusts in England and Scotland. (Photo by Flystock/Shutterstock)

A consortium led by AGS Airports has announced a partnership with NHS Scotland to deliver the UK’s first medical distribution network using drones. Known as Care & Equity – Healthcare Logistics UAS Scotland (CAELUS), the consortium is made up 16 partners including the University of Strathclyde, NATS and NHS Scotland and has secured £10.1m funding from the Future Flight Challenge at UKRI.

CAELUS’s plans include working to deliver a drone network that can transport essential medicines, bloods and other medical supplies throughout Scotland, including to remote communities. It had previously secured £1.5m of funding in January 2020 for the project, designing a digital twin of the proposed delivery network, which connects hospitals, pathology laboratories, distribution centres and GP surgeries across the country.

Fiona Smith, AGS Airports group head of aerodrome strategy and CAELUS project director, claims the project could “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,” Smith said. The first flight is set to take place in the first quarter of next year.

In Lancashire and South Cumbria, the local NHS trust is set to use drones to deliver medical samples between selected hospitals after securing £1.4m from UKRI. It is one of 17 projects selected in the UK to receive funding.

The University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay NHS Foundation Trust (UHMBT) and Lancashire Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust have teamed up with local businesses Digital and Future Technologies and Miralis Data Limited to deliver the project over 20 months in two phases. The first phase will see medical samples being transported between Royal Lancaster Infirmary, Westmorland General and Furness General Hospital and then a potential expansion to Royal Preston Hospital.

Are NHS drone pilots fully thought through?

Recent months have seen a flurry of NHS drone projects being given the go-ahead. These include Boots Pharmacy launching its own drone pilot to deliver prescriptions to the Isle of Wight and the local NHS Trusts using drones to deliver chemotherapy to patients in St. Mary’s Hospital on the island.

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Professor Michael Lewis, who specialises in operations and supply management at the University of Bath, told Tech Monitor that while there are possible use cases for drones in healthcare, serious challenges remain.

“It’s quite complex and fuel inefficient to move a very small vial of something from Portsmouth to the Isle of Wight, and so consequently, why can’t we stick it in a drone?” he says. “But [drone pilots] are all part of the UKRI for a reason; there’s not really a commercial case for them yet.”

Professor Lewis adds: “There are so many complications, not least air safety and regulatory regulated environments that might not allow drones to fly in certain places. Once you start thinking about load carrying and where those drones can land and take off, you actually reduce the number of GP practices that can even get access to these drone facilities.”

When the funding runs out, will the pilots stop?

Some of the NHS drone projects have been funded by the UKRI Future Flight programme, which provides funding for applications of technology that solves the future of flight in connecting people together and delivering goods and services. It has an allocated budget of £125m, with awards being issued between 2019 and 2024.

Once this funding ends, Professor Lewis believes that the pilots will cease: “You can see why people get excited about the prospects of drones – they’re getting better all the time and at lower cost,” he says. “But like lots of digital applications, unless you’ve got a really clear need then it doesn’t seem to have the disruptive benefit to resolve all the other challenges that come with it.”

In cases like connecting remote or rural communities to services, Lewis says that this could be a clear use case but that there are still questions about medical harm and ethics. “These projects raise a host of liability questions that only come into focus as the pilots clarify proof of concept,” he continues. “If [healthcare] approaches those pilots properly with a clear use case in mind, then I can see them starting to have an adoption pathway.

“But at the moment the current pilots, they’re probably gonna stop as soon as the funding stops.”

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