Drones delivering medical supplies to be trialled in Northumberland

Drones could be used to carry blood packs, prescriptions and more across rural Northumberland. Credit: Apian

Automated drones could soon be used to carry medication and blood samples between medical sites in Northumberland.

Northumbria Healthcare is trialling a scheme which will see uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAVs) take to the skies to try and reduce delivery times.

The trust says it will also help cut carbon emissions and improve patient experiences in rural parts of the region, particularly in time-sensitive situations.

The test flights have been given approval by the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and will be taking place from Monday 13 February to Friday 12 May on a route from Wansbeck General Hospital in Ashington up to Alnwick Infirmary and Berwick Infirmary.

Sir James Mackey, chief executive of Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust, said: "As an innovative and forward-looking organisation, we are always interested to explore initiatives which may be able to improve how we deliver care to our communities.

"With the area we cover and the number of hospitals and other sites we manage, having effective logistics to get supplies where they need to be is vital, while we are always mindful of our need to drive efficiencies and reduce our impact on the environment.

"Using drones has the potential to help us deliver important drugs and supplies in a better, smarter way, so we are looking forward to seeing how the test flights go. We are committed to providing as much care as we can in our outlying communities, so logistical routes to Alnwick and Berwick are a key focus."

The aircraft will fly with the use of fixed wings and rotors and will be able to take off and land vertically like a helicopter. They are able to carry up to 3kg of load and can travel at speeds of almost 70 miles per hour.

Six flights per day will take place at the beginning of the trial, rising to up to 15 per day later in the trial process. Chemotherapy medication will be delivered to Alnwick and Berwick infirmary, with pathology samples being delivered to Wansbeck on their return journeys.

The drones could also deliver items such as blood packs, prescriptions, medical equipment and mail.

The trial is being run in partnership with the company Apian, which is also funding the trial. The company delivered the first prescription medicine by drone in the Solent area in 2022.

Its co-founder and medical director Dr Christopher Law, said: "While there's still much work to be done before UAVs can operate autonomously in non-segregated airspace, there's an equal and opposite amount of evidence for Apian to collect for how on-demand delivery can impact healthcare just as it has our personal lives."

Members of the public can take part in an online survey running alongside the trial to give their thoughts.

Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To know...