NHS Scotland gets £10m backing for use of drones

Written by Ruaraidh Gilmour on 12 September 2022 in News

Consortium including Glasgow Airport owner hopes that use of autonomous technologies could help cancer patients in rural communities

Credit: Josh Sorenson/Pexels

A new network of medical drones could be used to help treat cancer patients living in remote Scottish communities.

AGS Airports, owners of Glasgow Airport, has partnered with NHS Scotland to deliver the CAELUS (Care & Equity – Healthcare Logistics UAS Scotland) project. The consortium secured £10.1m funding from the Future Flight Challenge at UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) in August 2022.  

The scheme aims to help NHS Scotland deliver a higher level of equitable care across urban, rural and remote areas of Scotland, allowing people who travel long distances or depend on rail, ferry, or air travel to stay at home while receiving treatment.  

Scottish Government public health minister Maree Todd, provided the keynote speech at a launch event last week in Glasgow, along with speakers from AGS Airports, NHS Grampian, and air traffic control firm NATS.  

The audience was told by Hazel Dempsey, NHS Grampian's programme lead for innovation, how the drone network could revolutionise cancer treatment for elderly people living in remote communities. 

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An example of a common form of cancer in 70 and 80-year-olds was used. The illness is treated with a small injection that takes around ten minutes to administer, however, in preparation for medication, patients must be taken to a regional pharmacy, meaning they would need to travel.  

Getting the medication to people in remote areas by car is not possible in many circumstances, due to the way it is prepared. Someone in Moray, for example, would have to travel to Aberdeen Royal Infirmary, which is a four-hour round trip via private transport, for seven days in a row, every 28 days for as long as the treatment works.

A medical transport drone could reduce the time for travel and personal cost while keeping patients closer to their families.  

Since securing £1.5m in January 2020, 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.

NHS Scotland has said it will bring its ‘Once for Scotland’ approach to the project, the second phase of which will involve live flight trials and removing remaining barriers to safely using drones at scale within Scotland’s airspace. Live flight trials will be operated by CAELUS consortium member Skyports.  

Dempsey said: " We are incredibly excited to be the lead board for this high-end innovative project. Our aim, from an NHS perspective, is to test the use of drone technology in urban, remote, rural and island landscapes.  We want to test if using drones will improve important aspects of our logistics service, for example, to test the transportation of laboratory samples, blood products, chemotherapy, and medicine delivery. Ultimately, we want to explore if drone technology can speed up diagnosis and treatment of medical problems.  

“This has the potential to improve services for those whose care is dependent on rail, ferry or airline timetables and help keep people at home where they can be supported by families and loved ones. This project intends to position the United Kingdom and NHS Scotland as a leader in the third revolution in the aviation industry."


About the author

Ruaraidh Gilmour is a reporter at PublicTechnology sister publication Holyrood, where a version of this story first appeared. He tweets as @Ruaraidh0.


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