The NHS in Lancashire and South Cumbria is set to pioneer the use of drone technology to deliver medical samples between selected hospital sites thanks to around £1.4m in UK Research and Innovation funding.
University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay NHS Foundation Trust (UHMBT) and Lancashire Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust will be teaming up with local enterprises Digital & Future Technologies and Miralis Data to deliver the 20-month project.
Selected as part of the government’s Future Flight Challenge, the two-phase trial will first see medical samples being transported between the Royal Lancaster Infirmary, Westmorland General and Furness General Hospital before simulating the potential expansion to Royal Preston Hospital.
The electrically charged drones will cut the delivery times between the hospitals across Morecambe Bay by over an hour, optimising the operation of pathology laboratories, meaning patients and clinicians will have access to results faster. Currently samples travel between the hospitals by van multiple times per day, with the new technology set to reduce the carbon footprint as part of the health service’s wider green agenda.
The drones, developed by UK company SkyLift UAV, will operate specific routes across the bay between the hospitals, for a trial period of 90 days and will fly almost silently in their own dedicated airspace at 250 feet above ground level. This comes thanks to support from the Civil Aviation Authority and cooperation from large private sector organisations.
Phil Woodford, director of corporate affairs at UHMBT, said: “We live and work in one of the most beautiful parts of the country and we have a responsibility to do so in as safe and sustainable way as possible. It typically takes anything from 60-90 minutes to drive a van between the RLI and FGH whilst spewing out pollutants that damage the atmosphere and our health. Travel time door to door with the drone will be achieved in around 15-20 minutes - slashing the normal time by up to 70%. It also has the potential to aid clinical decision-making with the removal of unnecessary transport delays.”
Professor Anthony Rowbottom MBE, clinical director for pathology at Lancashire Teaching Hospitals, added: “This important project will revolutionise deliveries across a specific part of Lancashire and South Cumbria and provide valuable insight into how this can be expanded across a larger pathology partnership network.
“Not only will this expedite the transfer of patient samples but if successful could provide scope for branching into other NHS services and, in the not-too-distant future, should be seen as standard practice. In the long term, with the right ambition and direction, why not aspire towards potentially extending drone use to home delivery for patients.”