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Skyports joins Thales in COVID-19 drone-delivery trial

Skyports' delivery drone, manufactured by Wingcopter, takes flight. (Photo: Skyports)

Skyports’ delivery drone, manufactured by Wingcopter, takes flight. (Photo: Skyports)

Skyports and Thales are partnering to conduct a drone delivery trial for the National Health Service (NHS) to support the United Kingdom’s COVID-19 response.

The trial, being conducted in Scotland, aims to prove the feasibility of delivering urgent medical cargo, such as COVID-19 test kits and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), between remote medical facilities by delivery drone. The trial is backed by Argyll and Bute Health and Social Care Partnership (HSCP) — the integrated partnership of NHS Highland and Argyll and Bute Council directed by the local Integration Joint Board.

U.K. drone delivery provider Skyports will conduct the trial and operate the flights using delivery drones supplied by unmanned aircraft-maker Wingcopter, because of its proven capability through numerous delivery operations around the world. The trial flights will be planned through Thales’ drone operations management platform, SOARIZON, which offers digital tools to maintain compliant and safe drone flying operations.

Based at Lorn and Islands Hospital in Oban, the trial will consist of two-way flights between the hospital and Mull and Iona Community Hospital in Craignure 10 miles (16km) away on the Isle of Mull.

As COVID-19 testing rapidly gathers pace in the U.K., the proposed delivery service will help to ensure that isolated communities have access to tests, delivered in a fast and efficient way. Currently, the majority of medical supplies and specimens are transported between the laboratory at Lorn and Islands Hospital, surrounding general practitioners’ surgeries and other healthcare settings by sea and road, a long and complicated journey.

The service would cut delivery times from up to six hours one way by ground transport and ferry, to 15 minutes for on-demand delivery by drone. The speed would contribute to keeping front line medical and delivery personnel safe.

Answering the call from government and Argyll and Bute HSCP, in response to the COVID-19 crisis, the trial is the result of rapid mobilization from industry as well as the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), local government, NHS Scotland and the U.K. Department for Transport (DFT). Argyll and Bute HSCP has been at the forefront of exploring with Skyports the use of unmanned aircraft technology, building on preliminary work with the Scottish government on the possibility of drone use by the public-sector emergency services in Scotland.

The two-week trial represents a crucial milestone for unmanned aviation in the U.K. Under current rules, drones must always be flown within visual line of sight of the remote pilot. To undertake these more extended flights (beyond visual line of sight, or BVLOS), the project team has been in close consultation with the CAA.

Through this trial, the alliance aims to prove the long-term, sustainable viability of such services; bringing together regulation, government and industry to unlock the transformational potential of drones for society when used in a safe, secure and controlled way.f this new service.”

Thales and Skyports are also working together within the CAA Regulatory Sandbox programme, exploring how regulatory approvals can be granted for more widespread BVLOS drone operations in the U.K.

Once the trial has been successfully completed, the team will continue to work closely with the CAA and the NHS to make services available in Scotland and across the U.K. to provide access to this innovative technology to a wide range of organisations, in particular a number of other NHS Boards and Trusts.

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