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Using drones to move urgent medical deliveries between London’s hospitals

London and the future of urban drone technology

Illustration by ILYA. Manipulated background image based on a photo by: Tom Arthur [CC BY-SA 2.0) via Wikimedia Commons.

This use case focuses on a drone delivery network for carrying urgent medical products between NHS facilities, which would routinely carry products such as pathology samples, blood products and equipment over relatively short distances between hospitals in a network.

  • Study explores rapid transport of light medical deliveries between hospitals
  • Increased speed and reliability could cut costs and improve patient care
  • We find this use case technically feasible; economic feasibility of a small-scale service would be challenging but could be compelling at larger scale
Medical delivery in London summary diagram

London has 34 hospitals in relatively close proximity. Deliveries between hospitals are frequent, and in many cases, time sensitive, but traffic and the lack of major roads restricts this.The key benefits to drone medical deliveries in London would be:

  • Saving time by flying over the congested streets
  • Saving money (if the service operates at large scale)
  • Making medical logistics more efficient by enabling deliveries which are not currently feasible
  • Providing quicker test results to patients
  • Reducing traffic on London’s roads

In order to better understand the feasibility of this use case, we have focused specifically on one possible connection in this network: the movement of pathology samples for post-kidney transplant monitoring between Guy’s and St Thomas’ hospitals in South London. This aligns with NHS plans to consolidate pathology testing into networks of multiple hospitals.

London drone use cases map

There are some technical challenges that need to be solved, owing to the complex environment. Safe operation in a heavily built-up area with complex and restricted airspace would require extensive testing. It would also require more sophisticated communications systems than are presently in place, along with ways of better managing shared airspace, in particular helicopters which operate along the Thames.

The drone connection between Guy’s and St Thomas’ should be seen as a pilot or proof of concept.

To be feasible, regulations around operation in built-up areas, under heli-routes and over the Thames would need to either be relaxed, or a specific exemption for these operations would need to be granted.

The drone connection between Guy’s and St Thomas’ should be seen as a pilot or proof of concept. The economic benefits of this use case would only manifest themselves as part of a broader network carrying a wide range of medical deliveries in a broader network of hospitals.

However there are no insurmountable barriers to this use case being feasible.

Conclusions and recommendations

Conclusions

The London use case in summary has strong social and public benefits and is feasible in principle. However, there are a number of challenges that need to be overcome in order to make this use case a reality.

The key challenges (C1-7), based on our analysis, are:

C1. The development of a drone system that can operate safely, securely and reliably beyond visual line of sight in London’s complex environment, while maintaining appropriate levels of privacy.

C2. The provision of suitably managed urban airspace. In the first instance air corridors could be identified with defined width and height, to help manage interaction with other airborne systems.

C3. The development of key elements of drone and drone systems technology, particularly with respect to automated systems that remove routine elements of human interaction, eventually moving to a fully autonomous system.

C4. Achieving the scale of service that is needed in order to achieve economic viability.

C5. The impact of noise from drones in close proximity to hospitals is currently unknown. Although hospitals have high levels of sound insulation, understanding of the effect of possible local drone operations on patient well-being is limited.

C6. Operation with high stability and in close proximity to buildings, with consideration to wind gusts, cross winds, building updrafts and downdrafts and wind tunnel effects.

C7. Operation in low light, at night time and in adverse weather, including high winds, rain, snow and poor visibility.

Recommendations

A. Regulatory change to enable routine drone operations at scale, beyond visual line sight and near people, buildings or vehicles. (C1 and C2)

B. The development of a new form of airspace management to enable safe automated drone operations at scale. (C1 and C2)

C. Electronic conspicuity devices fitted to all air traffic and integrated into a system, to improve safety, security, privacy and positive public perception. (C1 and C2)

D. Secure interfaces into other systems and infrastructure needs to be considered, with the number of interfaces minimised and encrypted. (C1)

E. Development of technologies that can demonstrate safe operation through high levels of redundancy, including secondary and possibly tertiary systems for command and control, navigation, power and propulsion systems. (C1)

F. Development of counter drone systems to identify and manage uncooperative drone operations, either malicious or accidental. (C1)

G. Development of registration and enforcement systems, with appropriate resource to ensure operator accountability. This should include a centralised database showing licensing of operator competency, the platform ID and airworthiness and the capability to provide real-time monitoring of the airspace. (C1, C2 and C3)

H. Requirement to develop tools and standards for the verification and validation of the drone components, platforms and systems, with traceability of the hardware and software supply chains. This should include development of simulation tools to ensure safe operation and validation of autonomous and machine learning systems. (C1 and C3)

I. Development of appropriate safety cases associated with the use case that could be published and used as standard scenarios to support the regulator and the growing UK industry. (C1 and C2)

J. Establishment of clear, accountable ownership and sign-off responsibility over the various aspects of operation. This includes maintaining airworthiness, oversight of system upgrades, assurance of pre-flight checks, the flight, associated safety related flight data and appropriate legal accountability and insurances. (C1 and C2)

K. Integration and interoperability between airspace management systems. This will require both technology solutions as well as co-ordinated standards, legislation and process development. (C2)

L. Coordination with other aligned technology areas around common challenges, which could include collaborations with the robotics and autonomous systems and connected and autonomous vehicle communities. (C3)

M. Development of technologies and regulatory frameworks to allow the systems to scale safely and in line with growing market demand. (C4)

N. An analysis of the impacts of drone noise on the urban environment and population. (C5)

O. Development of capabilities to ensure safe flight during adverse weather conditions and in low light or at night time. (C7)

P. Development of tests that prove out the capability of the platform and system in representative environments. Leading to trials with growing complexity, moving from controlled environments to full public demonstrations. (C1-7)

Full paper