Existing NHS Transport Challenges
The NHS supply chain is complex including moving core stock to NHS sites from suppliers and many bespoke and specialised transport operations overseen by individual trusts.
Products such as ‘patient diagnostics’ (e.g. blood, urine and stool samples going for analysis), chemotherapy medicines and blood stocks for transfusion often have short ‘shelf-lives’. This means that the transportation system has to be very reactive and adaptable. For example, chemotherapy medicines are often bespoke made for the patient and current logistics timescales can restrict where the treatment can be most effectively administered.
Where such goods are concerned it may seem obvious to transport them as fast as possible, however several other factors must be considered. Healthcare in developed nations is responsible for around 5% of global emissions and the supply chain contributes to this significantly. The NHS has a plan to reduce their contributions to net-zero by 2045. This is a significant challenges , meanwhile general urban logistics issues persist, such as congestion, air pollution and travel times. Finding the balance between the quality of patient care whilst considering costs and emissions is a challenge for the NHS.
The role that drones could play
Drones offer several potential advantages to the NHS in specific areas of their operations. The key benefit is the ability to travel at speed and provide easier access to remote areas where the terrain makes it more challenging for traditional road vehicles.
Several trials have proven the concept in this regard using larger fixed-wing drones to carry larger payloads between airfields and smaller vertical-take off-and-landing (VTOL) drones to access specific medical facilities.
UK trials with fixed wing drones:
Trials with smaller vertical-take off-and-landing (VTOL) drones to access specific medical facilities:
Issues to overcome
There are several issues that will have to be overcome before drones see more widespread use as part of main stream NHS logistics operations. These include:
Developing methods so drones and traditional piloted aircraft can be jointly managed in shared airspace. Currently ‘temporary danger areas’ need to be set up for drone corridors. This is time consumer and not a viable long term solution.
Devising safe routing of drones such that ground risks are adequately considered alongside the need to minimise noise and visual intrusion
Understanding how dangerous goods carriage legislation can be best applied to drones and what the implications of this are for the wider design and operation of drones
Developing automated methods by which drones can deliver and collect payloads without the need for direct human interaction
Determining in what ways vibration caused by drones might impact on the stability of medical cargoes during transit.
Developing stakeholders understanding of drone operation so they can contribute to debates about their use
International examples of drones used for medical logistics
Drones are already starting to be adopted for medical logistics purposes, particularly in places where health service sites (e.g. hospitals, clinics, doctors’ surgeries and laboratories) are hard-to-reach by existing surface transport modes.
Zipline is using drones to deliver blood for transfusion to hospitals and clinics across Rwanda in Africa, overcoming the considerable challenges of the region’s poor road infrastructure
Matternet, a drone logistics provider from California, used drones to deliver medicines in Haiti after the earthquake in 2010 and is now involved in routinely transporting laboratory specimens via drone in the USA
DHL has also experimented with the use of drones for delivering medicines and blood for transfusion in Germany
Wing (a subsidiary of Google’s parent company Alphabet) is trialling the use of drones to deliver medicines in Australia.