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A fast connection across the Solent for essential medical deliveries

Southampton-Isle of Wight medical delivery

Illustration by ILYA. Manipulated background image based on a photo by: Josh Sorenson, Creative Commons Zero (CC0) license via Pexels.com.

This use case focuses on linking Southampton across the Solent to the Isle of Wight using a delivery drone.

  • Using drones for medical deliveries bypasses a slow and expensive ferry service
  • A service like this would fulfil a clear need for ad-hoc deliveries
  • We find this use case to be technically and economically feasiblee
Southampton drone use cases summary diagrams

The Isle of Wight is the UK’s second most populous area (after Northern Ireland) not to have a fixed link to mainland Great Britain. The Solent is a barrier to people and goods, with relatively slow and expensive ferries providing the main connectivity. Similar drones could also serve other isolated centres of population such as the Scottish islands.

Drones could carry light payloads of up to a few kilos over distances of 10-20 miles, with medical deliveries of products being a key benefit. The key benefits to drones for carrying medical products to the Isle of Wight would be:

  • Saving time by avoiding the slow ferry service and roads
  • Saving money
  • Making medical logistics more efficient by enabling deliveries which are not currently feasible
  • Providing medical products and tests to patients more quickly

In order to better understand the feasibility of this use case, we have focused on carrying blood products from NHS Blood and Transplant in Southampton to St Mary’s Hospital on the Isle of Wight, as well as Portsmouth and Bournemouth, for ad-hoc short notice deliveries and occasional emergency shipments. A fixed-wing VTOL drone would carry blood in batches of up to 10 units between the two hospitals.

Southampton drone use cases map

Drones already exist which can carry payloads of this size over comparable distances, but there are challenges around the drone flying beyond the operator’s line of sight, and around allocation of airspace in restricted areas such as around Southampton Airport. A system to manage airspace and share it between drones and other air traffic would be required for this to operate safely, as would robust communications infrastructure.

The Isle of Wight is the UK’s second most populous area (after Northern Ireland) not to have a fixed link to mainland Great Britain. The Solent is a barrier to people and goods, with relatively slow and expensive ferries providing the main connectivity.

Conclusions and recommendations

Conclusions

The Southampton-Isle of Wight 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, across the Solent while maintaining appropriate levels of privacy.

C2. The provision of suitably managed unsegregated urban airspace allowing for 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 demonstrate economic and social feasibility.

C5. Operating across all weather conditions including high winds, rain, snow and poor visibility; and in low light or at night time, in order to ensure a robust and reliable service.

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 unauthorised drone operations either malicious or accidental. (C1)

G. Development of registration and enforcement systems, with appropriate resources 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 an appropriate safety case for this application, that could be published and be used as standard scenarios to support the regulator and the growing UK industry. (C1 and C2)

J. Establishment of a 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. This 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. Development of capabilities to ensure safe flight during poor weather conditions and during darkness. (C5)

O. 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. (C1-5)

Full paper

The full technical and economic analysis paper can be read here (see pages XX-XX).