A healthcare drone trial that could revolutionise the way the NHS transports samples is being tested at Broomfield Hospital.
The three-metre wingspan drone is set to begin test flights later this month, in a six-month trial backed by the UK Space Agency.
If phase one of the test flights are successful over the next few months, it’s hoped the drone will then fly non-medical items, such as PPE, and could eventually even carry COVID-19 samples and blood tests.
Charlotte Williams, Director of Strategy for the Trust, said: “We are really excited to be involved in this project and see how the use of drones could help deliver real benefits to both patients and staff, with a reliable time-saving service.”
A purpose-built landing pad is being built on the hospital site in Chelmsford for the flights. The hybrid-drone lands and takes off vertically, like a helicopter, but also has wings like a plane.
It’s a fitting a location for the trial, as Broomfield was once a WW1 Royal Flying Corp Airfield.
The project is the idea of Apian, a healthcare drone start-up founded by Hammad Jeilani and Christopher Law, members of the Trust’s Innovation Fellowship, which is designed to nurture new exciting healthcare ideas and technology that will help deliver better outcomes for patients. The pair are also trainee doctors at Barts Health. The trial is being funded by a grant from the UK Space Agency, and the first phase will see the drone fly in and around the hospital grounds without carrying any items, eventually extending off-site on pre-agreed flight paths in partnership with the Civil Aviation Authority.
Christopher from Apian said: “COVID-19 has highlighted challenges in NHS supply chain logistics. There has never been a better time to create a faster, more dependable and environmentally friendly method of transporting medical supplies. We are confident that by setting up a medical drone delivery service, we’ll be able to fly samples to labs more regularly, reliably and quickly, helping improve patient health outcomes.”
The drone, which is almost silent when cruising in forward-flight, will be flying at 300 feet (90 metres) above ground level, ensuring that the drone and any manned aircraft – which fly above 500 feet (150 metres) - are kept separate. The drone is also quiet, and will not be able to be heard indoors once it reaches 250 feet. Flights will eventually be taking place over farmland and empty spaces, avoiding homes and residential areas.
Flying the drone by remote control will be a pilot from Flyby Technology, with all ‘pilots’ being ex-military fast jet or helicopter instructors. Pilots will be based on site at Broomfield Hospital during any testing.
The drone is also designed to fly in harsh weather conditions originally for offshore wind farms, so wind, rain or snow won’t stop it reaching its destination.