Drones to deliver medical samples across Morecambe Bay through Future Flight Challenge funding

University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay NHS Foundation Trust (UHMBT) and Lancashire Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust are set to pioneer the use of drone technology to deliver medical samples between hospital sites.

The project has come about due to approximately £1.4 million in funding from UK Research and Innovation. It is one of only 17 projects to be selected nationally as part of the government’s Future Flight Challenge.

UHMBT and Lancashire Teaching Hospitals will work with local enterprises Digital & Future Technologies and Miralis Data Limited to deliver the 20-month project. The first phase will see medical samples transported between the Royal Lancaster Infirmary, Westmorland General and Furness General Hospital, before simulating potential expansion to Royal Preston Hospital.

The electrically-charged drones, developed by UK company SkyLift UAV, are expected to cut delivery times by over an hour, optimising the operation of pathology labs, granting quicker access to result, and reducing carbon footprint.

The drones will operate specific routes between the hospitals for a trial period of 90 days and will fly “almost silently” in their own dedicated airspace, 250 feet above ground level, thanks to support from the Civil Aviation Authority and cooperation from large private sector organisations.

“The use of UAVs or drones to fly urgent items is no longer the stuff of science fiction – from drones delivering lifesaving defibrillators to those ‘on scene’ first helping heart attack victims in Sweden, through to delivering urgent medical supplies and equipment in Rwanda and Ghana,” said Tony Crick, Chief Allied Health Professional and Healthcare Scientist at UHMBT. “They are instead part of the modern range of equipment available to UHMBT and LHTr to operate in a more efficient and effective way.”

Phil Woodford, Director of Corporate Affairs at UHMBT, commented: “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 percent. It also has the potential to aid clinical decision making with the removal of unnecessary transport delays.”