In the UK, A Sudden Surge in Medical Supply Deliveries by Drone

Mass retailers like Amazon and Walmart continue to dominate the global headlines when it comes to news about remote package deliveries by drone.  But based on actual flights, it’s the aerial delivery of badly needed medical supplies, not consumer goods, that is surging worldwide.  In Africa and increasingly in the United States, small innovative drone companies like Zipline have already clocked hundreds of thousands of miles delivering blood plasma, vaccines and surgical masks to remote towns and villages off the beaten path of road vehicles and even helicopters.  These long-distance often precarious drone deliveries aren’t providing snacks and comfort foods – they’re actually saving lives.

And look at Great Britain.  Quietly, without much publicity, a growing number of British medical supply companies –  backed by the country’s National Health Service, the equivalent of the US Department of Health and Human Services, or HHS – are beginning to make their own mark with drones.  These efforts could soon become the most advanced anywhere in the world.

Unlike the US, but much like China as well as Japan, drone medical supply deliveries in the UK – while still in their infancy — are targeting both urban residents in heavily populated areas as well as rural residents often living miles from a nearby hospital or clinic.  One drone medical supply network is beginning to service the remote northeastern area of England known as Northumberland (which includes southeastern Scotland).  The Northumbria operation will ferry up to 3 kg of temperature-sensitive  chemotherapy medications and pathology samples between hospitals and clinics in the region.

All of the drone flights, while technically autonomous, will be monitored remotely for the length of the pilot period, which is scheduled to last through May 2023.  Apian, the small UK drone start-up sponsoring the pilot, is currently making 6 flights per day but plans to expand them to 15 daily, assuming the logistics pan out.

The Northumbrian operation, while breaking new ground for the UK, pales in comparison to another development:  the establishment for a 165-mile drone “superhighway” across central and southern England for medical supply deliveries as well as support for search and rescue and farm analysis operations.  The planned corridor will connect a series of drone hubs above towns and cities such as Reading, Oxford, Milton Keynes, Cambridge, Coventry and Rugby.  The highway won’t be in place until mid-2024 but when complete will be the largest and longest anywhere in the world.

Telecom giant BT has already committed USD $6 million to Altitude Angel, the British start-up that is overseeing the initial stages of the project (dubbed “Project Skyway”), which is strongly supported by the British government.  The National Health Service is providing logistical support to establish linkages between the drone hubs to facilitate medical supply deliveries.

Research suggests that Project Skyway, when complete, could contribute as much as $50 billion to national economic growth by 2030.  Other sectors, including agriculture, construction and law enforcement, could eventually be integrated into the network.

Meanwhile, further to the south, Apian has formed a new partnership with the UK pharmacy and beauty-supply chain Boots to deliver emergency medicines to the Isle of Wight, located off the British coast. After a series of trial flights in 2022, the small drone company, which was founded by NHS doctors-in-training, has received permission to establish a permanent “segregated airspace” – in effect, a mini- drone corridor – between Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight to facilitate ongoing autonomous drone flights of medical and non-medical supplies to residents of the isle.

Britain’s recent – and belated — ascendance in the global drone market reflects the close partnership that has developed between the public and private sectors, with the NHS and the medical supply industry leading the way, observers say.  Public-private collaboration has allowed for early trials and testing of Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) operations on a routine basis, integrating the management of unmanned and manned aircraft traffic in adjacent airspace.  Many UK companies have already been granted BVLOS status on a case-by-case basis.  And while US drone regulatory development faces continual bottlenecks in the United States , British aviation authorities have just issued new guidelines to allow more companies to conduct BVLOS operations nationwide.

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