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Objectives of the service

In a non-COVID world, medical logistics is problematic enough within the Argyll and Bute region of Scotland. The undulating terrain and island geography can often result in slow and infrequent transport of medical products such as pathology samples. The effects of COVID-19 have worsened this, with a decrease in the number of transport modes such as ferries and a higher quantity of medical goods moving within the NHS supply chain.

A drone delivery system addresses these issues, significantly improving the speed and frequency with which medical products move between hospitals and medical practices, all whilst using an unmanned transport system which enables  essential NHS staff to reduce their exposure to COVID-19 through improved social distancing.

The SEDDCR project aims to implement sophisticated delivery drones into the NHS supply chain in Argyll and Bute, able to carry payloads up to 6kg up to 100km. COVID-19 pathology tests, medicine, personal protective equipment (PPE) and other essential cargo will be carried. In addition, as “business as usual” pathology tests recommence operations post the COVID-19 pause, these will be carried in the delivery drones, ensuring that patients receive their results as soon as possible and can commence potentially life-saving treatment quickly.

NHS staff will order medical products / delivery through the specially-developed customer interface. This will allow staff to track the location of their delivery drone in flight, providing a never-before-seen level of transparency and tracking capability to the NHS supply chain.

Through the use of delivery drones, the project aims to ensure all communities receive access to high quality healthcare, regardless of their geographical location.

Image Description: The Skyports delivery drone during live NHS operations in May 2020

Image credit: Skyports, Project :SEDDCR

Users and their needs

The user of the drone delivery solution is the NHS in Scotland. Specifically, it is the doctors, nurses and other medical professionals who need to rapidly move pathology samples, medicine and equipment between medical facilities. These users are looking for a medical logistics solution which meets the following requirements:

  • Fast
  • Frequent
  • Secure
  • Reliable
  • Cargo maintained within cold-chain environment (if relevant)
  • Clear audit trail is kept of transports
  • Operationally effective for the NHS (e.g. unloading the drone, receiving packages, handoffs do not require excess resources to facilitate) and
  • Cost effective.

The drone delivery solution meets these requirements.

The weather in Argyll and Bute is known for being poor in the winter months, with periods of high winds and strong rain. The drone delivery system is able to operate in levels of wind and rain; however, a key outcome of the project will be data which speaks to the real world drone delivery percentage uptime which can be maintained during periods of poor weather.

Service/ system concept

The drone delivery system provides a rapid, frequent, cost-effective and reliable medical logistics transport mode to the NHS. Users will be able to schedule/order drone deliveries through a specially-designed customer interface, with the ability to live-track the drone as it commences the delivery flight.

The overarching solution is comprised of:

  • The drone: world-class drones able to carry up to 6kg of payload up to 100km, within a cold-chain environment.
  • The control hardware and software: ground Control Stations through which Skyports pilots oversee the drone flights.
  • The pilots: commercially qualified drone pilots, experienced in Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) flights.
  • Customer interface: a web portal through which NHS users can order and schedule products through the drone delivery service.
  • Regulatory approval: UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) approved operations and airspace segregation.

Image Description: The Skyports delivery drone during live NHS operations in May 2020

Image credit: Skyports, Project :SEDDCR

Image Description: The Skyports and Thales SOARIZON team during live NHS operations in May 2020

Image credit: Skyports, Project :SEDDCR

Space Added Value

The drone delivery system utilises space assets on three levels:

  • Satellite Communication (SatCom): the drones fly automatically on pre-planned missions, but are overseen by a trained drone pilot monitoring the drones. The drones are connected to the pilot through a communications link, which is comprised of both LTE (i.e. mobile phone networks) and SatCom links. While the signal strength of LTE can differ based on the drone’s location and altitude, SatCom is always present and ensures that the drone pilots are always able to monitor the performance of the drone and take control if required. The SatCom link is therefore a critical safety redundancy component of the overarching drone delivery system.
  • Satellite Navigation: the drones fly pre-programmed routes passing through waypoints which are defined by GNSS co-ordinates and altitude levels. The drones have a Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) receiver, which utilises the GNSS constellations to determine its position.
  • Satellite-enabled Mission Planning: mission planning is a critical task which involves studying the geography and terrain of the area being overflown to ensure that the operation is conducted safely and in compliance with UK aviation regulations. Up-to-date and accurate satellite imagery greatly enhances the mission planning process through understanding elevation levels, potential obstructions, ground risk profile and other important elements.

Current Status

The Acceptance Test milestone of the project has been successfully achieved on 12 February 2021 and ESA gave the green light to start the trials campaign. Skyports recently received regulatory approval for the project and has begun drone delivery flights for the National Health Service (NHS), connecting four medical facilities in the region. A variety of medical cargo including pathology samples, medicine and replacement medical equipment has been carried. Transport time and frequency has significantly improved for those medical facilities connected via the drone delivery service. Careful monitoring of progress has begun to determine what level of benefit the drone delivery service may have over established modes of transport.

Skyports delivery drone in action delivering critical COVID-19 medical supplies for the National Health Service (NHS) in Argyll & Bute Scotland

Prime Contractor(s)

Status Date

Updated: 18 February 2021 - Created: 18 February 2021