A network of delivery drones transporting blood and vital medical supplies could be launched in the UK as early as 2022, cutting waiting times for lifesaving medicines and creating greener, more reliable infrastructure for transporting medical supplies over long distances.

The delivery network will be the first of its kind in the country and aims to establish a national infrastructure for transporting blood transfusions and pathology samples via unmanned aircraft systems (UAVs).

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The drones, which will also transport COVID-19 supplies, will be capable of carrying medicine, blood and other medical supplies across long distances to remote and off-track locations.

The UAVs will operate over the UK’s 4G and 5G networks, helping to extend their range while being controlled via mobile devices.

The initiative is being helmed by a consortium of organizations led by drone logistics operator, Skyfarer, alongside aviation technology firm Altitude Angel, mobile network operator O2, Cranfield University and German drone manufacturer, Phoenix Wings.

The project has received operational authorization from the Civil Aviation Authority, which has greenlit the consortium to conduct short-range flight demonstrations that will test the capabilities of the drones.

Technology trials will begin in May 2021, followed by delivery trials in the summer.

Derek McManus, COO at O2, said the project would “provide a blueprint for UAV-based logistics to be tested in other areas of the UK and around the world.”

According to the consortium, 2.5 million units of blood are processed and distributed in the UK every year, and more than 200,000 new blood donors are required each year in order to keep up with demand.

Phoenix Wings is supporting the project by providing a drone with a payload capacity that can meet 97% of England’s vital blood delivery requirements.

The project, which is funded by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), forms part of a wider effort to explore how drones can be used within healthcare to reduce waiting times and make supply chains safer and more climate-friendly.

Phoenix Wings is supporting the project by providing its Manta Ray drone, which can carry a 10 kg of payload over 55km or a 7kg payload of 95km.
Image: Phoenix Wings

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Transportation currently accounts for 34% of the UK’s net domestic CO2 emissions, with heavy goods vehicles making up 17% of domestic transport emissions.

The consortium said its drone delivery system would deliver faster turnaround times using autonomous deliveries that could be processed at any time, helping to meet the supply and processing needs of medical centers around the country.

McManus said: “This technology not only has the power to support the healthcare system and save lives, but also reduce emissions usually released by traditional medical delivery transport, helping to build a greener future for Britain.”

At the next stage of the project, the consortium will conduct a feasibility study and scoping exercise, which will inform the creation of a drone corridor where unmanned UAVs can operate safely.

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Cranfield University is helping to stage technology trials for the project beginning in May 2021, when flights will be taking place at the University’s airport. The drones will use Altitude Angel’s Unified Traffic Management technology to ensure they can operate safely in the same airspace as manned aviation.

The consortium aims to have fully operational routine medical deliveries taking place by 2022.

A separate UKRI-funded project involving Altitude Angel, alongside network operator BT and a number of UK tech startups, aims to establish the UK’s first commercial drone corridor by summer 2021.

Called Project XCelerate, the initiative aims to demonstrate the safety and effectiveness of using drones for a variety of use cases across the private and public sectors.