NHS test drones for blood and medical test delivery between London hospitals

Early research says using drones could save $21 billion annually to the broader UK economy.
By Lynne Minion and Leontina Postelnicu
10:28 AM
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NHS tests drones

A fleet of drones flying over London rooftops carrying life-saving blood and medical results between hospitals could be on the horizon, but a UK report has found regulatory and infrastructure obstacles need to be overcome.

The Flying High report by innovation foundation Nesta studied the possible rapid transportation of light medical deliveries between hospitals in the UK’s capital and says the increased speed and reliability could cut costs and improve patient care. But barriers include the need for air traffic control systems to allow drones to operate at scale without interfering with each other or traditional aircraft. 

The project team collaborated with five UK city-regions and experts from the NHS and emergency services, as well as technology experts and regulators, to study use-cases for drones, including when car accidents and fires occur.

In its case study on medical deliveries in London the report says the city has 34 hospitals in relatively close proximity and drones could save time by flying over the congested roads, providing faster test results, blood products and light equipment.

The researchers focused on the movement of pathology samples for post-kidney transplant monitoring between Guy’s and St Thomas’ hospitals in South London and found there are “no insurmountable barriers” to the creation of a large-scale drone delivery network linking the NHS’s London hospitals.

“Safe operation in a heavily built-up area with complex and restricted airspace would require extensive testing,” the report found.

Naturally, there are obstacles to be overcome.

“It would also require more sophisticated communications systems than are presently in place, along with ways of better managing shared airspace, in particular helicopters which operate along the Thames,” the researchers wrote. “To be feasible, regulations around operation in built-up areas, under heli-routes and over the Thames would need to either be relaxed, or a specific exemption for these operations would need to be granted.”

The challenges are similar to those faced in the integration of any transport network, the report claims.

“Some are technical challenges of drone technology – in particular around control beyond the vision line of sight of the operator, precision flight and autonomy. But most are not,” the researchers said. “Just as the challenges of integrating cars into cities were largely around the infrastructure, laws and management of vehicles, so it is with drones.”

The report claimed UK policies lag behind those of other countries including the US and Singapore.

It is estimated the use of drones could provide a $55 billion boost to the UK’s GDP by 2030 and $21 billion in annual cost savings to the UK economy.

London has the seventh-worst rate of traffic congestion in the world and with the population expected to grow from nine to 10.8 million by 2041 the report authors say drones could alleviate the problem.

But the complexities to overcome – while surmountable – are formidable, with aircraft and buildings to dodge and regulations to adhere to.

“London’s airspace is one of the most complex places to introduce innovations. London has the largest collective airport system in the world and its airspace is the most congested in the world, handling more than 170 million passenger journeys in 2017; 30 million more than the next busiest city, New York,” the report says.

“London’s urban airspace is equally complicated. London has some of the highest population densities and largest numbers of tall buildings in the UK. This combined with numerous no fly zones and a complex patchwork of land ownership means that flying drones in London is more challenging than any other UK city.”

NHS England’s National Clinical Lead for Innovation Professor Tony Young said the possibilities are exciting. 

“We want to harness the massive potential of technology in the NHS to deliver improved patient care and the use of drones offers exciting possibilities,” Young said. “As the NHS develops its long-term plan we will be looking at the use of technology now, tomorrow and into the future to ensure we can take advantage of all the benefits new innovations can bring.”

A version of this story appeared on Healthcare IT News sister publication the British Journal of Healthcare Computing.  

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