A consortium led by AGS Airports, in partnership with NHS Scotland, to deliver what will be the UK’s first medical distribution network using drones, has secured £10.1m from the Future Flight Challenge at UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).

It is the second successful round of funding for the Care and Equity – Healthcare Logistics UAS Scotland (CAELUS) consortium, which brings together 16 partners, including the University of Strathclyde, NATS and NHS Scotland.

Together they are 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 £1.5m in January 2020, the consortium has designed drone landing stations for NHS sites across Scotland and developed a virtual model 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.

Fiona Smith, AGS Airports’ group head of aerodrome Strategy and CAELUS project director, said: “The project is set to revolutionise the way in which healthcare services are delivered in Scotland.

“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.”

Public Health Minister Maree Todd said: “This innovative project will help position Scotland at the forefront of drone technologies to deliver essential healthcare supplies to people more quickly and provide equity of care between urban and remote rural communities.

“It also demonstrates an effective industry partnership showing that when businesses, universities and public sector work together they can deliver for Scotland and outperform the competition, attracting welcome funding at this challenging time.”

Dr Andy Keen, clinical lead for innovation at NHS Grampian, said: “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.

Alex Brown, director of Skyports Drone Services, said: “We’ve already demonstrated the positive impact drone interventions can have on individuals and communities, and we’re eager to kick-off the next round of flight trials with the view to soon be facilitating permanent drone deliveries to connect people to these essential supplies – wherever they are.”