Isle of Wight to test drone deliveries of chemotherapy

UK drones hospital transport

English uncrewed aerial vehicle (UAV) medical services startup Apian is overseeing yet another series of UK tests transporting medical supplies to remote destinations – this time aiming to trial drone deliveries of chemotherapy treatments to the Isle of Wight.

London-based Apian has teamed up with the UK National Health System’s (NHS) local administration on the Isle of Wight to begin exploratory tests spanning September through November. If initial results come back positive, the plan is to begin trial flights of drones to deliver chemotherapy medicines to cancer patients on the island. Should those take place, they’d mark the world’s first every delivery of chemotherapy supplies by UAV.

That aerial experimentation is far from the first in the UK. In response to both transport disruptions and the urgent demand for medical supplies created by the COVID-19 pandemic, the NHS has repeatedly trialed – and often adopted – drone delivery options to more remote destinations like islands off Scotland. UK officials recently announced a future broadening of that UAV activity to vital medicines, and even transplant organs. 

In their current joint project, the NHS and Apian will first check initial facility and viability of using the craft for medical runs to Wight. The flights will deploy 85 kg electric vertical takeoff and landing planes produced by Skylift, which can carry maximum payloads of 20 kg and reach top speeds of 100 mph. The 7-shaped, 29-mile corridor designated by aviation authorities for missions between Portsmouth and Wight will operate during fixed windows during week days at maximum altitudes of 850 feet. 

As initial trial missions continue, university partners in the project will conduct simulated flight condition testing on the chemotherapy treatments to determine if they experience any negative effects from factors like vibration, altitude, or temperature fluctuation. Hopes are high that those and other parts of the trial will clear the way for live, life-saving chemo missions.

Since changes made in July 2020, Wight’s NHS unit has had to rely entirely on chemotherapy supplies from Portsmouth. Delivery of those involves three different modes of transport – including a ferry – requiring several hours that can be lengthened by delays. Apian believes it can cut that down to 30 minutes, and provide on-demand service alleviating threats of chemotherapy shelf-life expiring due to unexpected transport snags.

For Apian CEO Alexander Trewby, the trial drone deliveries of chemotherapy to Wright represent both a professional challenge and personal mission he hopes to extend nationwide.

“My mother worked for the NHS in Portsmouth her entire life before she passed away from cancer three years ago,” Trewby said. “This project marks a very important first step in the construction of a network of drone corridors connecting hospitals, pathology labs, GP surgeries, care homes and pharmacies up and down the country so that in the future, everyone’s mother will benefit from the delivery of faster, smarter and greener healthcare.”

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