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Delivering eye-in-the-sky medical supplies

There are many reasons to live in the Inner Hebrides: wild, unspoiled landscapes and breathtaking beaches, mountains and lochs. It’s also warmer than you might think. But what if you need immediate medical help?

Ferries provide islanders with a vital lifeline to the mainland. However, during the pandemic, when medical supplies including COVID-19 testing kits and results had to get to isolated communities and back as quickly as possible, travel took on a new urgency.

During a successful pilot, drones were used to carry the cargo. The automated tech handled flights of up to 50 miles, saving time and, potentially, lives.


Rapid results, faster diagnosis

Medical deliveries that once took up to 36 hours were slashed to just 15 minutes thanks to innovative thinking by the Argyll and Bute Health and Social Care Partnership.

In the spring of 2021, the authority teamed up with Deloitte, Vodafone and drone delivery service provider Skyports to improve services for both patients and healthcare professionals.

During the three-month initiative, drones flew between the Scottish mainland and locations including the Mull and Iona Community Hospital. With no need to navigate rugged terrain, or changeable ferry and tide timetables, test results could be turned around in as little as two hours.

“Drones have the potential to revolutionise the delivery of urgent goods and services for remote locations like Argyll and Bute,” said partner and leader in Deloitte Ventures Scott Campbell.

“It’s a powerful example of the value that drones could bring to communities and wider society, not just for remote locations like Argyll and Bute, but for the country as a whole.”

"I am delighted that Argyll and Bute Health and Social Care Partnership is again at the forefront in Scotland using new technologies to benefit our patients. The use of drones provides real opportunities to improve services and will help enable quicker diagnoses for our patients."

Joanna MacDonald

Chief Officer for Argyll, Bute Health and Social Care Partnership

Space age tech

The project was funded by a joint initiative between the UK Space Agency (UKSA) and European Space Agency (ESA) Space Solutions to use space-enabled technology and services that could support the NHS.

Flights from Oban to Mull, and Clachan-Seil and Lochgilphead on the Scottish mainland were authorised by the Civil Aviation Authority.

Each drone, which could carry as much as 3kg, left a Skyports Operations Centre in Argyll and Bute and automatically tracked a pre-defined route, rising up to 5,000 feet and travelling as fast as 80mph.

Communication between the tech and ground control happened via Vodafone’s 4G network and satellite communications. Both scheduled and on-demand services were developed – NHS staff could request flights via a web application created by our specialist TechWorks hub.


Cutting carbon and cost

In the Western Isles, sea-blown gusts are formidable and fog can slow down ferries and planes, so how do the drones find their way, come rain or shine?

“There’s a visual landing target,” explains Deloitte’s Sarah Kruger, “that looks more like a smartphone QR code. It’s a marker that the drone camera identifies through fog and rain and this allows the technology to land itself.”

Drone-delivered medical cargos mean fewer touch points, so less cost. And a dramatically reduced carbon footprint is a significant environmental benefit.

The project has shown how the tech can take on crucial social and commercial roles that on-the-ground teams are less able to support.

TechWorks: What does tomorrow look like?

Our Bristol-based team brings together 60 technologists, systems engineers, digital architects and multi-skilled consultants who can help clients to reimagine the future. The hub works across a number of sectors, combining its digital and creative know-how with the latest tech.


Lizzie Tantam, PR manager
+44 207 007 2911 | Email Lizzie

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