The impact of the current COVID-19 crisis has created new unforeseen opportunities for the use of services in healthcare beyond search and rescue. The pandemic has exacerbated the need for hospitals to significantly improve the efficiency and speed of their inter-site medical distribution services while limiting staff exposure to health risks and avoiding cross-contamination.
As a result, the healthcare sector is embracing the advancement of drone technologies — also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) and sees itself firmly as one of the market’s early adopters. Drones can significantly improve most medical supply transportation today, compared to specialist couriers, “blue lights,” or ambulances via road networks, which are significantly impacted by traffic congestions, especially in busy urban environments.
Typically, it takes two hours to complete a time-critical “blue light” shipment, e.g., by ambulance, between a city hospital and their blood bank with a representative 40 miles distance between them. This time includes the delivery time itself and the hospital staff’s processing time, which are almost equally split. From commissioning to receipt, each medical delivery journey can consume significant amounts of valuable time and resources that would have otherwise been used to support the hospital’s frontline services.
With an estimated 2.5 million movements (medical supplies, biological samples, and other items) between hospitals and associated sites within the UK alone, the development of an efficient UAV-based transport network between hospitals makes logistical and financial sense as well as provides a real opportunity to improve both patient wellbeing and also reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
One of the pioneers in this area is the California-based company Zipline, specializing in humanitarian deliveries, such as delivering blood and medical supplies to remote locations by BVLOS flights. The company operates commercially in Rwanda and Ghana, having already provided more than 200,00 commercial hub-to-hub network deliveries, representing over 14 million autonomous BVLOS miles, delivering blood products via drones.
Within Europe, the drones have been trialed as part of emergency response by TU Delft, aiming to prevent deaths and accelerate recovery efforts through the provision of fast delivery of first aid items. These include Automated Defibrillators (AED) and two-way video communication between the first aiders and emergency services. Elsewhere, Google’s Project Wing has been testing UAV operations in Australia, aiming for disaster relief by delivering aid to affected areas, including water and medical supplies.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, there had been significant additional operational demands on regulators concerning the adoption of drones transporting medical supplies. The UK CAA has had to develop new approval policies that detail requirements and guidance for the approval of BVLOS UAV flight authorizations effectively and efficiently to respond to the surge in market interest.
Although there is limited data around the potential UAV medical delivery market, an extrapolation of the current market indicates a size of approximately $1.3bn by 2030, representing almost 5% of the total predicted UAV global market.
Early medical movement trials are showing impressive results. In May 2021, Skyports completed a 3-month demonstration project for UAV deliveries of medical supplies and Covid-19 tests between Lorn and Islands District General Hospital in Oban on Scotland’s west coast, to the Mull and Iona Community Hospital in Craignure on the Isle of Mull, which are 12 miles apart.
Using UAV services makes it possible to reduce delivery times to 15 minutes in comparison to 45 minutes typically required for both road and ferry. During these short-time trials, over 1,600 diagnostic samples weighing just a few grams from 884 patients were carried with achieved saving over 11,000 hours of the pathology sample transport time, which is normally performed by vans.
Benefits of drones in medical supply chain
Here are some of the key benefits of the use of drones in the medical supply chain.
- Safe: Reduced risk of errors and number of transfers related to deliveries. Improved security, traceability, and transparency in the delivery system.
- Effective: Reduced overcapacity in terms of payload and human resources.
Patient-centered: Less waiting time for patients, which improves flow efficiency and patient centricity.
- Timely: Increased reliability in delivery lead time. Reduction in the number of deviations.
- Efficient: Increased utilization rates due to fewer delays and possibilities for further centralization.
- Equitable: Improved flexibility of deliveries in terms of both location and time.