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Oban Airport is being eyed as a base for the UK’s first ever drone operations and training academy – with a £2 million investment to get the idea off the ground.
Talks are under way about creating a state-of-the-art specialist centre to serve the west coast of Scotland which would require additional development at the site.
The idea has accelerated following the recently-announced £70 million rural growth deal for the region, involving Argyll and Bute Council, which owns the airport.
Currently drones flying between the islands and hospitals in Oban and Lochgilphead are overseen from a temporary mobile operations centre in the car park of the Lorn and Islands District General Hospital.
Stephen Whiston, head of strategic planning for Argyll and Bute Health and Social Care Partnership who is leading on healthcare logistics for the region, confirmed that Oban Airport is being eyed as a location for the UK’s first hub of its kind.
He said: ‘My colleagues in Argyll and Bute Council have identified a £2 million investment going into the establishment of drone operations from the Oban Airport, as well as obviously looking at a training element around that to develop the innovation and approach that we would need in rural Argyll.
‘There’s a real opportunity to scale this up and we want to work closely with (drone delivery company) Skyports about developing the business case. We have been doing a lot of work across Scotland with my colleagues in other health boards about what this means for opportunities across Scotland,’ said Mr Whiston.
‘We are very clear that we view this [using drones] as the future going forward within local logistics supply. We recognise, absolutely, that this has got potential and we want to see how we can build a national network.’
The drone trials – which were officially announced last week – are being closely watched by a number of interested health boards from Glasgow Greater and Clyde, Ayrshire and Arran, Grampian, and Tayside, among others.
NHS bosses are keen to embrace new technology and improve rural patient care.
They are also desperate to solve the costly logistics headache that comes with serving hard-to-reach islands, where kit and important medical samples are often at the mercy of the weather, roads and ferries.
Argyll and Bute Council has confirmed it is working in partnership with research institutions including The Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS) which may also have a role to play.
The council described the plan as an ‘unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) Technical Innovation Centre and Training Academy’.
The council said: ‘Working in partnership with Skyports, the council aims to develop a UAV logistics hub, providing drone deliveries across the West Coast of Scotland.
‘Combining a unique testing environment with a strong local research base will accelerate the development, deployment and commercialisation of new technologies and support the development of STEM skills (science, technology, engineering and maths) not only across Argyll and Bute, but in Scotland and the UK.’
It is, however, subject to a full business case and key to the scheme will be private sector corporate involvement and local job creation. Already, global brands Vodafone and Deloitte are at the table locally as major partners in the three-month Oban drone trials.
Duncan Walker, chief executive officer of Skyports, said: ‘For us, we see this as the next stepping stone on a journey of rolling this out on a much wider basis around Scotland and beyond to other NHS trusts and other users. Places like the west coast of Scotland, with its challenging terrain, are perfect for this kind of solution.’
Mr Whiston, for the HSCP, explained that when it came to moving samples and vital equipment around, Argyll and Bute had 33 ‘scattered’ GP practices.
Critical samples, some with a short shelf life, can be delayed when ferries are not running or roads closed, he said, using the repeated landslips at the main arterial route of the A83 as an example.
Yet in some cases, drones can transfer a pathology samples from an island to a hospital lab within 15-minutes – instead of 27 hours, officials said.
Mr Walker, for Skyports, stressed that drones would never entirely replace van deliveries or the transportation of heavier payloads via ferries, due to limitations on what a drone can carry.
But he said that by using ‘best in class’ drone technology, the drones had faced some ‘pretty good Scottish weather’ recently and had come through the test by demonstrating the robustness of the service.