Oban drones transport Covid tests

The Skyports drone heads off with a delivery

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Oban is at the centre of a groundbreaking UK trial to transport medical supplies and samples via drone.

Following initial ‘proof-of-concept’ trials last year, it was announced today that drones are now officially taking part in a three-month trial.

They will fly between the Lorn and Islands Hospital, Mid-Argyll Community Hospital in Lochgilphead, the Easdale Medical Practice in Clachan Seil, and the Mull and Iona Community Hospital, Craignure.

Each drone will be loaded with up to 3kg of ‘critical supplies’. They will deliver actual Covid-19 and other test samples, medicine, essential PPE and Covid-19 testing kits between remote locations after dummy runs last year.

The Skyports drone passes overhead.

The project involves drone delivery company Skyports, NHS Scotland, Argyll and Bute Health and Social Care Partnership (HSCP), Vodafone and digital consultants Deloitte.

Skyports hailed it as a ‘step closer’ to a wider roll out of drone delivery services for the NHS.

The unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) will be remotely piloted from the Skyports Operations Centre in Oban and fly ‘automatically’ along predefined routes.

In a UK first, Skyports becomes the first operator to be allowed to carry diagnostic specimens by drone after receiving formal permission from the Civil Aviation Authority.

Stephen Whiston, head of strategic planning for the HSCP, said the trials would help assess how unmanned drones can enhance its logistics operations and improve services to some of the area’s most remote and island communities.

‘This three-month project working with Skyports will provide critical evidence on the real benefits this technology can bring to the NHS not only in Argyll and Bute but across Scotland,’ he said.

Duncan Walker, chief executive officer at Skyports, said: ‘The experience from this important initiative will put us another step closer to permanent operations from which we hope more NHS facilities could soon benefit. This project underscores the viability of drone technology as a practical way to move goods.’

The drone ‘proof-of-concept’ trial in May 2020

Supporters say delivery drones can improve access to hard-to-reach areas which significantly increases the speed of transport and reduces times in some areas of Argyll & Bute from up to 36 hours via road and ferry journey to just 15 minutes – whilst also increasing the frequency of pick-ups.

Communication between the drone and the operations centre will be provided by both Vodafone’s 4G network and satellite communications to ensure connectivity coverage is provided at all times, officials said.

Anne Sheehan, for Vodafone UK, said: ‘This is an amazing use of technology to overcome geographical boundaries. The trial is a big breakthrough, and we hope that we will see drone flights make a real difference for the NHS and for patients in the most remote parts of the UK.’

Both a scheduled service and an on-demand service will be run, with orders able to be placed by NHS staff through an online system developed by Deloitte.

Vodafone’s 4G network will be used to identify and track the location of a drone in real time at Skyports’ Operations Centre in Oban.

Vodafone said its network would help ensure connectivity coverage is provided at all times for safety reasons. It would also and give a more robust and trusted picture of the drone’s location, it said.

The project has been funded between the UK Space Agency (UKSA) and the European Space Agency (ESA).

The Skyports drone is loaded and prepares for takeoff.