A consortium involving Strathclyde researchers that will deliver what will be the UK’s first medical distribution network using drones has secured £10.1 million in funding from the Future Flight Challenge at UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).
It is the second successful round of funding for the CAELUS (Care & Equity – Healthcare Logistics UAS Scotland) consortium by AGS Airports in partnership with NHS Scotland.
The project, which brings together 16 partners, is working to deliver what will be the first national drone network that can transport essential medicines, bloods and other medical supplies throughout Scotland including to remote communities.
Since securing £1.5 million in January 2020, the CAELUS consortium has designed drone landing stations for NHS sites across Scotland and developed a virtual model (digital twin) of the proposed delivery network which connects hospitals, pathology laboratories, distribution centres and GP surgeries across Scotland.
NHS Scotland has said it will bring its “Once for Scotland” approach to the project, the second phase of which will involve live flight trials and removing remaining barriers to safely using drones at scale within Scotland’s airspace.
Principal Investigator Dr Marco Fossati, of the Aerospace Centre of Excellence at the University of Strathclyde, said: “This second tranche of funding will allow the CAELUS project to move to the next exciting stage with flight trials of the drones and testing of the critical systems we have designed that will ensure the safe operation of what will be a revolutionary development for aviation in the UK and for NHS Scotland.”
Professor Massimiliano Vasile of the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and Director of the Aerospace Centre of Excellence, said: “We are delighted to receive further funding for this innovative project, that builds on years of research developed in the Aerospace Centre, to create the first UK drone delivery network providing a vital support to health services in Scotland”.
Fiona Smith, AGS Airports Group Head of Aerodrome Strategy and CAELUS Project Director, said: “The CAELUS project is set to revolutionise the way in which healthcare services are delivered in Scotland. A drones network can ensure critical medical supplies can be delivered more efficiently, it can reduce waiting times for test results and, more importantly, it can provide equity of care between urban and remote rural communities.
“The second round of funding from UKRI will allow our consortium to undertake live flights and begin to deploy the physical infrastructure needed to support the drones across Scotland. This will involve building prototype landing bases as well as digital and communication infrastructure. We will also work with local communities to ensure they understand why and how the drones will be used.”
Dr Andy Keen, Clinical Lead for Innovation, NHS Grampian said: "NHS Grampian is proud to be the lead board for NHS Scotland on CAELUS and we very much look forward to working with our sister health boards across Scotland, and our industry partners over the next couple of years.”
"All the participating boards will make a significant contribution to this important evaluation about care delivery in Scotland. Our local Innovation HUB will be exploring how drone technology could be usefully used as a way of delivering care to people who live in urban, remote, rural and island locations.
“Our region is possibly uniquely positioned to test this because it covers such a vast geographical area with an approximately 50/50 spilt of urban and rural populations.
Live flight trials will be operated by CAELUS consortium member Skyports. The UK-based drone services provider is an experienced operator of medical and dangerous goods cargo flights. The company was instrumental to early trial flights with NHS Scotland in 2020 and 2021, completing over 12,000 of flight hours in the region to date.
Gary Cutts, Future Flight Challenge Director at UK Research and Innovation said: “With the potential to quickly deliver medicines, bloods and other medical supplies on demand, the CAELUS project laid the groundwork for revolutionizing health care access across Scotland. We know these technologies can change people’s lives, but it’s important we work with communities to understand how they will best benefit from them. By working with local communities and taking a national approach CAELUS 2 will strengthen heath care provision in Scotland.”
The CAELUS consortium comprises: AGS Airports Limited, NHS Scotland, NATS, University of Strathclyde, Connected Places Catapult, ANRA Technology, Atkins, Arup, Cellnex UK, , Commonplace Digital, DGP Intelsius, Dronamics, Plane Finder, Skyports, The Drone Office, and Trax International.
Further detail including video content on Project CAELUS is available at AGS | Drones (agsairports.co.uk)