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UK Cranfield University: New research projects to explore use of drones for medical deliveries

UK Cranfield University, located in Bedfordshire, is involved with two new research projects that focus on the use of drones for medical deliveries, reports a Uni press release.

There are over 2.5 million annual despatches of medical supplies, samples and other items between hospitals and medical centres around the UK, with the majority of transportation undertaken by commissioned couriers on the country’s road network. The two projects, funded by Innovate UK, are part of the UK Research and Innovation enterprise scheme.

One project, led by drone company Skyfarer, will seek to create a flight testing corridor – subject to Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) approval – in Warwickshire, “making history by providing the UK’s first drone-based medical deliveries in a populated suburban environment within unsegregated airspace,” says the release.

A second, working with hospitals and NHS trusts directly, will create “the first UK set of standard operational procedures (SOPs) for routine, drone-enabled delivery operations and demonstrate within hospital environments the automatic take-off, remote piloting and precision drone landing by hospital staff using the SOPs.”

Professor Antonios Tsourdos, Head of the Autonomous and Cyber-Physical Systems Centre, Cranfield University, comments, “The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, along with the social distancing measures, have expedited the need for home deliveries of goods, with the influx in demand putting massive strain on traditional delivery methods and supply chains, as well as hospital inventories.”

He continues, “Autonomous drones are an ideal solution for efficiently delivering essential goods in compliance with social distancing regulations, since they don’t require a person to operate them or rely on traditional road-based infrastructure.” Adding, “ These projects could significantly improve point-to-point movement of critical medical supplies and allow hospitals to get the right product at the right time, quickly and efficiently, while limiting staff exposure to health risk and avoiding cross-contamination.”

Elliot Parnham, Skyfarer CEO and Founder, explains, “Setting up this flight testing corridor will enable the trial of autonomous beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) drone technology in a suburban setting, providing a sustainable blueprint for gaining CAA approval and paving the way for commercial deliveries by drones to begin in the UK.”

The Skyfarer project focuses on validating and then creating a Concept of Operations (ConOps) to gain an application from the CAA for the creation of the drone flight corridor. Regulations currently require unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to be operated within visual line of sight of the operator at all times.

Jens Mangelsen, Technical Director, DGP Intelsius Ltd and Principal Investigator for the Enabling UK Inter-site Medical Delivery Drone Operations project, adds, “This project brings together, for the first time, a unique consortium of hospital NHS trusts, nationally recognised airspace and drone specialists and ourselves to provide a rapid study, with outputs scalable at a UK level.”

Through the ongoing creation of the National BVLOS Experimentation Corridor (NBEC), Cranfield University is also working with partners Blue Bear Systems Research, Thales and Vodafone “to provide a safe, managed environment for UAV experimentation, ultimately working towards their unsegregated operation with manned aircraft in both controlled and uncontrolled airspace.”

Co-investigators for the ‘Skyfarer – enabling drone powered medical logistics in the UK’ project also include Skyfarer and Altitude Angel, with Apian, ERS Medical, Avy and FlyPulse in a supporting role. Other partners for the ‘Enabling UK Inter-site Medical Delivery Drone Operations: Meeting the logistical and operational challenges presented by SARS-CoV-2’ project are Blue Bear Systems Research, The Drone Office, Herotech8 and Kings College London University, who will work closely with Milton Keynes, Bedford, Luton and Dunstable hospitals.

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