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The Rise Of The Health Care Drone: Drones For Good

Last updated on

July 27, 2020


    The Rise Of The Health Care Drone: Drones For Good

    The coronavirus pandemic has meant all sectors have had to adapt quickly. As a result, innovation has moved quickly, with drones use and technology coming to the forefront in many industries and areas. In this article we look at how 2020 could see the rise of the health care drone.

    In May 2020, the UK government announced that drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) could be utilised to carry personal protective equipment (PPE) from mainland England to the Isle of Wight, providing vital support for NHS staff. The crossing can be made by the Windracers Ultra in 10-15 minutes, and this fixed-wing drone can carry 100kg in weight for up to 600 miles. However, this is just one example of how drones are doing their bit in the battle against coronavirus.

    In July 2020, Amanda Solloway, Science Minister for the UK government released a statement outlining three new projects that were chosen to be part of a collaboration between the European Space Agency (ESA)and the UK Space Agency. The project aims to find and support space-enabled services and technology that can provide vital assistance to the NHS during the coronavirus pandemic. Skyports a space agency, will be working alongside NHS Highland, to deliver vital samples and medical supplies using drones to the islands from a hospital on the mainland.

    Amanda Solloway, Science Minister said:

    I’m proud of how our world-leading space sector is stepping up to provide innovative solutions to directly support our amazing NHS, as we continue our national effort to tackling coronavirus.

    In this post, we look at how drones may be used in the medical sector, and the challenges faced as we work towards increased drone use in this area. You will learn:

    • How drones are currently used in health care
    • The benefits of Health Care Drones
    • The shortcomings of Health Care Drones
    • The future of Health Care Drones

    If you’re interested in how drones can assist you and your business, you can speak to one of our experts here.

    Drones in the Medical Sector

    Drones have been used to assist the medical industries for several years now, with multiple start-up businesses with significant funding trialling new ways of utilising drone technology for the health sector.

    In countries with good road infrastructure, airspect regulation is often very strict. Health services in these countries tend to have excellent and established logistics networks, and as a result companies trialling drone technology have struggled. However, a trial in Switzerland by Matternet, was a success. The trial involved taking lab samples between several hospitals in Lugano using multi-rotor drones. The trial was a success, but did encounter a number of challenges.

    Interestingly, most of the innovation in utilising drones to deliver medical supplies has taken place in developing nations. The need in developing nations is more noticeable, but the difficulties more challenging. One company, Zipline has made significant progress in several African countries using fixed-wing drones to deliver packages to rural areas with poor infrastructure, including vital blood supplies.

    UK Drone Trials

    With most trials being conducted in developing nations, the UK trials are a departure from tradition. Nesta has been working to map the future for drones in the UK for several years, including looking at hypothetical uses for drones. The company has explored transporting medical equipment and samples between the Isle of Wight and mainland Britain (this body of water is known as the Solent).

    Nestas research suggests that the trial conducted during the coronavirus pandemic is likely to have long-lasting positive implications for drones in the UK health sector. Drones can be used to perform a vital public service, and this trial will perhaps pave the way for drone adoption on a wider scale.

    Tony Young, professor and the UK’s clinical lead for innovation at the NHS, said:

    The NHS Long Term Plan is bringing new technologies into the NHS to improve patient care and save lives, and as we deal with the greatest challenge in the NHS’ history, innovation in medicine and convenient, faster technology are helping frontline staff to give people world-leading treatment for Covid-19 alongside care for killer conditions including cancer.

    Problems and Challenges with Using Drones in the Health Sector

    Nesta produced a 2018 report which highlighted that there is public support for widespread drone use. However there are several problems which need to be addressed before drones can be widely used. These can be broadly summarised into three categories, technical problems, lack of collaboration and public support.

    Technical Problems

    Developing safe, long-distance flight ‘beyond visual line of sight’, precision flight and autonomous piloting is challenging. In order to ensure drone safety, innovators must develop and improve low-altitude air traffic management and networks of communication.

    The Future of Flight Challenge is the government’s strategy project, which is supported by £100 million of public funds for the purposes of research and development into aerospace technology, including drones. However, conducting flights across the Solent will make an excellent use case that could produce a volume of data boosting confidence in the safety of drone technology for this purpose. With the government recently announcing additional funding for drone innovation as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, we would see great advancement in drone technology very soon.

    Lack of collaboration between innovators

    One of the biggest issues in drone technology development in all sectors is the lack of communication and information sharing between innovators. Many drone companies come up with and trial innovative ideas, in fact the Nesta survey found that there were more than 700 drone innovation businesses in the UK. On top of this, there are many businesses trialling the technology including in the infrastructure and construction sectors.

    Lack of collaboration between innovators

    One of the biggest issues in drone technology development in all sectors is the lack of communication and information sharing between innovators. Many drone companies come up with and trial innovative ideas, in fact the Nesta survey found that there were more than 700 drone innovation businesses in the UK. On top of this, there are many businesses trialling the technology including in the infrastructure and construction sectors.

    However, Nesta research conducted in 2019 also highlighted that organisations that should be working together are not. The regulatory structure lags behind, with the government moving slowly in this area, taking no lessons from the private sector.

    Furthermore, those involved in building the technology do not involve their end user in the development process. For example, NHS hospitals, local councils and their relevant development teams should be consulted as part of the process.

    That being said, there has been significant improvement in this area. The innovation team from the Civil Aviation Authority’s innovation team has been working to assist businesses in navigating the complicated safety rules, and obtain the relevant permissions they need to conduct trials.


    Is there public support for drone use?

    One of the biggest challenges faced by any innovation project, is whether the public are actually in support of its increased use. Questions innovators need to ask themselves is whether the public want drones, who should operate them, and for which purposes should drones be used.

    A Nesta investigation uncovered that actually there is strong support for drones being used for public services. However, the public were much more concerned about hobbyist use or commercial drone use. But, public service use and successful trials could pave the way for public opinion to change. As drones are not widely used at present, it can be difficult for members of the public to form an opinion about them.

    Rachel Maclean, transport minister said:

    Now more than ever, it’s vital that we protect our NHS, which is why it’s great to see our world-class space sector leading the way in providing solutions to protect the public and patients.

    As we recover from coronavirus, the exciting projects revealed today will use innovative tech to support our national health service, now and in the future.

    It is anticipated that public opinion on drone use will gradually change as their use becomes more common. The drone sector and innovators must engage with the public around their opinion on drone use. It will be essential to ask questions about their priorities and their values when it comes to drone use. Innovators must also be proactive in educating the public about the benefits of drone use.

    The NHS Solent trial could provide a vital real-world test case that could help the public understand and support drone use. The concern is however that the coronavirus pandemic presents exceptional circumstances, and as a result, the public are more open to different public health solutions than ever before. In addition, the public are more likely to be suspicious and opposed to drones operating over land than over the sea.

    The new initiatives announced by the UK government in July 2020

    On July 10th 2020, the government announced a new collaboration between the UK Space Agency, the ESA and space company Skyports to work on three projects. One such project is using drones to deliver COVID-19 test kits.

    Amanda Solloway, Science Minister said:

    The projects we are backing today show UK ingenuity at its finest, and will make a real difference to how we use this latest innovative technology to deliver critical healthcare now and long into the future.

    The UK space industry has some of the brightest minds in the country and is well placed to support the unprecedented national effort to overcome coronavirus and recover strongly from the global pandemic.

    Space-Enabled Delivery Drones for the COVID Response (SEDDCR)

    Working in collaboration with NHS Highland, Skyports will work to deliver medical supplies and samples from a mainland hospital in Argyll and Bute to hospitals on the Scottish islands off the west coast. The drones will utilise satellite communication, mobile connectivity and Earth observation data to map their route to provide much needed supplies to medical practices.


    A Bristol-based company Landmrk Limited, is working to develop an app named Stay. Stay is an innovation for third sector organisations supporting the mental health of young people. using satellites the app awards young people with ‘badges’ for positive behaviour allowing them to access discounts, rewards or incentives.

    Isolation +

    A business based in Scotland, Stevenson Astrosat is working on Isolation + – a solution which utilises advanced space analytics alongside ground information to find vulnerable communities. The technology will allow charities and local authorities to identify and support those who are most vulnerable to COVID-19 as a result of poverty or age.

    Around £2.6 million has been made available to support the three projects announces, with the UK Space Agency and ESA continuing to seek further bids, with the call for project ideas staying open until 30 September 2020.

    UK Government Minister for Scotland Iain Stewart said:

    It is great news that the UK Space Agency is supporting coronavirus response projects which will benefit Scottish communities.

    I welcome the innovative Skyports and NHS Highland scheme to use space-enabled drones to deliver crucial testing and medical supplies from the mainland to islands off the west coast of Scotland.

    Drones for Good: The Health Care Drone

    The coronavirus pandemic has presented a unique and unprecedented opportunity for drones to provide assistance and support to the public sector. From providing vital supplies and samples to remote communities, to paving the way for widespread support of commercial drone use. The rise of the health care drone has only just begun, and we hope that the challenges faced in the industry can be overcome. Advancing drone technology and increasing drone use can play a huge role in the future provision of health care services and in meeting the challenges presented by coronavirus.

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