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Oban hospital was at the centre of a ‘UK first’ on Tuesday as a powerful drone started a two-week series of test flights to Mull.
Nicknamed ‘Lorna’ by a nurse, it has been taking off close to the helipad for the 10-mile journey to the hospital serving Mull and Iona.
During the two-week trials the drone will transport PPE equipment and COVID-19 testing kits with flights taking place up to five times a day.
Test officials said the method would cut what would be a six-hour journey by road and ferry down to 15 minutes.
And if health bosses and the Civil Aviation Authority are satisfied, ‘Lorna’ could become a regular feature at the hospitals from September.
It could transport ‘small, high-value, urgent cargo’ in thermal-controlled boxes. Important samples and blood could be flown to mainland pathology labs to get quicker diagnoses for island patients.
Alex Brown, head of operations for Skyports, said patients on the more remote islands would find out what was wrong with them far quicker.
‘If I get sick on a Thursday and have a blood test and pick up is not until the following Wednesday, my options are to travel to Oban hospital, or another island where there are more frequent pick-ups, or delay my treatment and testing by six days.’
Transport by drone could also reduce samples losing ‘quality’ because of the time between one being taken in an island surgery and it being checked in a specialist mainland lab.
The project involves a link-up between the hospital, drone delivery company Skyports, unmanned aircraft-maker Wingcopter, and Thales, which uses a drone operations management platform called SOARIZON.
Duncan Walker, CEO, of Skyports, said the prospects are ‘super exciting’ and had enthused local doctors and nurses.
The Civil Aviation Authority, which controls airspace, had given special exemptions for the trials to take place, he said.
Trials for what drones can do have been ‘accelerated’ by the pandemic and the need to get urgent goods out quickly and limit human contact.
The drone will fly at a height of around 100m with general air space starting at 120m and upwards. It would fly below that to avoid any collisions on specially-programmed routes avoiding houses, Mr Walker said.
Unofficially dubbed a ‘Range Rover’ of the unmanned aerial vehicle world, it can cruise at 55mph, has a flight range of 62 miles and has a maximum take-off weight of 20kg.
The drone showed its metal on Sunday, said test crews, remaining ‘rock solid’ in the strong winds and heavy rain which battered Oban. But more testing is required.
Although its take-off mode generates noise, the aeroplane cruise mode it flies in, is inaudible.
Asked about risks, Mr Walker said: ‘The level of safety is certified by the Civil Aviation Authority which is very rigorous.
‘The routes we will do are the safest. We don’t fly over houses and we’ve got safety features should a rotor stop, or if one form of communication stops it can work. There’s lots of built-in mitigations and the technology has been proven to be safe over many years.’
Alex Cresswell, CEO of Thales UK, said: ‘This trial demonstrates the positive role that unmanned technology can play in our society and represents a landmark step to accelerate its adoption.’
Joanna Macdonald, chief officer for Argyll and Bute Health and Social Care Partnership, said she was delighted it was at the forefront in using new technologies to benefit patients in Scotland.
‘The use of drones provides real opportunities to improve services and will help enable quicker diagnosis for our patients.’