As the world becomes aware of the significant benefits drones will bring to our lives, it is only natural that inventors, entrepreneurs, and investors are now examining the technology’s potential from every angle. Regrettably, in a rapidly evolving industry like drone technology, there is still a great deal of misunderstanding about what a drone actually is, leading many companies, organisations, and the media to believe that a drone is merely a small spider-shaped device that delivers a bottle of beer, a cup of coffee, or a pizza!
A drone is any unmanned (no pilot or driver on board) system that is controlled remotely or autonomously.
You will notice after reading this sentence several times that there is no mention of air anywhere. In the interest of clarity, this is the official definition of a drone as published by the International Organisation for Standardisation; it was designed to encompass “all” unmanned systems of “all” shapes and sizes operating in any environment: surface (land and sea), underwater, or in space. It includes humanoid robots, driverless cars, ships and submarines, aircraft and spacecraft, and even the small devices that automatically vacuum your floor while you’re away.
Larger, more powerful, and effective remote-controlled drones could eliminate the dangers associated with using helicopters for offshore wind farm maintenance inspections. Surely, a good starting point would be to apply this incredibly versatile technology to applications that keep people safe and healthy.
Numerous applications fall under this category, including the use of drone technology by law enforcement to reduce the risk to police officers in high-risk environments; offshore wind farm and underwater shipping inspections and maintenance to reduce the risk to human life; search and rescue; support for fire departments; delivery of humanitarian aid; and support for our medical services. Given the current environment, I believe that medical and pharmaceutical logistics are a good place to begin.
Health and medicine
This highly complex and large-scale application could undoubtedly benefit from the use of unmanned systems to improve the movement of medical supplies and biological materials, such as blood and pharmaceutical supplies. However, as is often the case, many are looking in the wrong place with the wrong tool.
The challenge of transporting time-critical medical supplies will never be solved by small drones flying a few kilograms of materials around. We need to look at the entire medical logistics infrastructure and create a strategic plan to implement drone technology designed to overcome key pinch points that cause delays in critical, life-saving supplies where delivery of such supplies is difficult. Obvious examples of these are the delivery of short life-span compounds used in cancer treatments, the transportation of blood and the distribution of vaccines in the midst of a global pandemic! As the latter will never be implemented in time to assist the current crisis and the transportation of biological materials such as blood is highly emotive, let’s look at the logistics surrounding short life-span pharmaceuticals.
Today, there are compounds that have a lifespan of 30 minutes, which makes getting them to the patient before they expire extremely problematic.
The use of unmanned systems to improve the transportation of medical supplies and biological materials, such as blood and pharmaceuticals, would undoubtedly be advantageous for this highly complex and expansive application. Nevertheless, as is frequently the case, many are searching in the wrong place with the wrong instrument.
The problem of transporting time-sensitive medical supplies cannot be resolved by small drones carrying a few kilograms of materials. We must examine the entire medical logistics infrastructure and develop a strategic plan for implementing drone technology to circumvent key choke points that cause delays in the delivery of vital, life-saving supplies. The delivery of short-lived compounds used in cancer treatments, the transportation of blood, and the distribution of vaccines during a global pandemic are obvious examples. As the latter cannot be implemented in time to alleviate the current crisis and the transport of biological materials such as blood is highly emotive, let’s examine the logistics of short-lived pharmaceuticals.
Presently, there are substances with a half-life of 30 minutes, which makes delivering them to the patient before they expire extremely difficult.
The current solution is the use of “just-in-time” couriers who deliver via road in temperature-controlled vans or, in an emergency, even by taxi! Not only is this astronomically expensive, but it also increases the likelihood of late arrival, resulting in the loss of astronomically expensive compounds and, more importantly, the inability to treat in need patients.
Drone technology can revolutionise the “hub and spoke” distribution problem of transporting medications directly from the point of production to the hospitals within range. Obviously, there are numerous technical, legislative, and potentially political obstacles to overcome; therefore, you cannot simply purchase air drones and begin transporting these compounds, and isolated trials will not get us there. Infrastructure, the control of drone traffic, product security, temperature control, safety, and compliance in a highly regulated logistics sector must be addressed as part of a strategic, long-term implementation plan involving many stakeholders from the NHS supply chain, NHS trusts, pharmaceutical logistics companies, and others.
An excellent example of this use-case in the UK has been British company, Skylift.
This summer, Skylift partnered with the NHS to complete the world’s first chemotherapy delivery. The package was picked up from Portsmouth and delivered to the Isle of White. Each drone delivery replaces at least two car journeys and one hovercraft or ferry journey per delivery – saving carbon emissions and contributing to improving air quality for patients and the community.
NHS chief executive Amanda Pritchard said: “Delivering chemo by drone is another extraordinary development for cancer patients and shows how the NHS will stop at nothing to ensure people get the treatment they need as promptly as possible – while also cutting costs and carbon emissions.
In an interview with COPTRZ at COPTRZ Commercial Drone Exhibition 2022, Skylift CEO, Toby Moores, stated “It’s been amazing to help on this project. With the delivery of chemotherapy, it’s important that it gets delivered quickly as the medicines don’t last very long. If you miss the ferry, it risks compromising the treatment.
With our VTOL, we can do the trip in 19-minutes, and this trial has provided a viable option for the NHS going forward.”
In addition to health applications, there are also safety applications, such as the use of drone technology to aid in the inspection and maintenance of offshore wind farms.
Compliance requirements necessitate routine inspections, maintenance, and repairs in high-risk environments, such as working at great heights, around potentially moving machinery, or in a potentially hostile maritime environment! In statistics made available from RIDDOR, there were 129 work-related deaths between 2021/22 with 29 deaths caused by falling from height and 14 caused by being trapped by something collapsed/overturning. Utilising drones for initial inspections not only reduces the cost of erecting scaffolding, but also eliminates the need to risk individuals working at height, or entering confined spaces.
This, in turn, leads to increased job turn around times, lowers insurance premiums and removes the need to for multiple team members to complete routined inspections.
While drone is becoming more respected and renowned for its ability to mitigate risk within construction and asset inspection, we are still only remain in the early adoption phase of this technology.
However, the wind industry has conducted numerous trials of small air drones in inspection roles, which, despite their limited utility and ability to fly in strong winds, have already demonstrated the application’s viability in enhancing the safety of crews conducting potentially hazardous inspections.
For maritime inspections, larger, IP-rated systems such as the DJI Matrice 300 RTK are required due to the increased wind speeds, water spray. With such a tool, you will be able to combat winds of up to 33.5mph, enabling perspectives that have previously been unseen.
The way forward?
In summary, drone technology has seen wide adoption across a variety of industries. Drones provide a safe alternative to operations that traditionally involve large scale risks to personnel. By incorporating this technology into your workflows, you can expect to see increased productivity, due to shorter job turnaround times and a removed need to multiple team members (all you’ll need is a pilot and a spotter).
For more information on how you can increase operational efficiency while reducing risk, get in contact with our dedicated UAV strategists.
Article credit: British Safety Council.