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Lancashire and South Cumbria set to revolutionise NHS pathology deliveries

9 August 2022

  • Making improvements
  • Hospital services
  • Working in partnership

The NHS in Lancashire and South Cumbria is set to pioneer the use of drone technology to deliver medical samples between selected hospital sites thanks to around £1.4m in UK Research and Innovation funding.

One of only 17 projects selected nationally, the work will see University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay NHS Foundation Trust (UHMBT) and Lancashire Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust teaming up with local enterprises Digital & Future Technologies and Miralis Data Limited to deliver the 20-month project.

Selected as part of the government’s Future Flight Challenge, the two-phase trial will first see medical samples being transported between the Royal Lancaster Infirmary, Westmorland General and Furness General Hospital before simulating the potential expansion to Royal Preston Hospital.

The electrically charged drones will cut the delivery times between the hospitals across Morecambe Bay by over an hour, optimising the operation of pathology labs, meaning patients and clinicians will have access to results faster.

Currently samples travel between the hospitals by van multiple times per day, with the new technology set to reduce the carbon footprint as part of the health service’s wider green agenda.

The drones, developed by UK company SkyLift UAV, will operate specific routes across the bay between the hospitals, for a trial period of 90 days and will fly almost silently in their own dedicated airspace at 250 feet above ground level. This comes thanks to support from the Civil Aviation Authority and co-operation from large private sector organisations.

Tony Crick, Chief Allied Health Professional and Healthcare Scientist at UHMBT, said “The use of UAVs or drones to fly urgent items is no longer the stuff of science fiction - from drones delivering lifesaving defibrillators to those ‘on scene’ first helping heart attack victims in Sweden, through to delivering urgent medical supplies and equipment in Rwanda and Ghana. They are instead part of the modern range of equipment available to UHMBT and LHTr to operate in a more efficient and effective way."

Phil Woodford, Director of Corporate Affairs at UHMBT, said: “We live and work in one of the most beautiful parts of the country and we have a responsibility to do so in as safe and sustainable way as possible. It typically takes anything from 60-90 minutes to drive a van between the RLI and FGH whilst spewing out pollutants that damage the atmosphere and our health. Travel time door to door with the drone will be achieved in around 15-20 minutes - slashing the normal time by up to 70%. It also has the potential to aid clinical decision making with the removal of unnecessary transport delays.”

Professor Anthony Rowbottom MBE, Clinical Director for Pathology at Lancashire Teaching Hospitals, added: “This important project will revolutionise deliveries across a specific part of Lancashire and South Cumbria and provide valuable insight into how this can be expanded across a larger pathology partnership network.

“Not only will this expedite the transfer of patient samples but if successful could provide scope for branching into other NHS services and, in the not too distant future, should be seen as standard practice. In the long-term, with the right ambition and direction, why not aspire towards potentially extending drone use to home delivery for patients.”

Gary Cutts, Future Flight Challenge Director, said: “Over the past few years we’ve seen rapid developments in all aspects of the aviation system. From cutting the length of time someone waits for medicine to arrive, to supplying greener ways to travel, these 17 projects will deliver real benefits to people across the UK.”  

More information about the UK Research and Innovation’s Future Flight Challenge can be found on their website here: https://www.ukri.org/what-we-offer/browse-our-areas-of-investment-and-support/future-flight/.