A consortium involving Strathclyde researchers that will deliver what will be the UK’s first medical distribution network has launched its next phase.

The CAELUS (Care & Equity – Healthcare Logistics UAS Scotland) project secured £10.1 million funding from the Future Flight Challenge at UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) last month.

To celebrate, consortium members, stakeholders and politicians gathered at Glasgow Airport for the official launch and to hear more details of the project timelines and work so far.

Scottish Government Public Health Minister Maree Todd provided the key-note speech at the event which had a number of exhibitions on show from partners. 

Led by AGS Airports in partnership with NHS Scotland, CAELUS 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 £1.5 million in January 2020, the consortium has designed drone landing stations for NHS sites across Scotland and developed a virtual model (digital twin) of the proposed delivery network which connects hospitals, pathology laboratories, distribution centres and GP surgeries across Scotland.

Flight trials

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.

Principal Investigator Dr Marco Fossati, of the Aerospace Centre of Excellence at the University of Strathclyde, said“This second tranche of funding will allow the CAELUS project to move to the next exciting stage with flight trials of the drones and testing of the critical systems we have designed that will ensure the safe operation of what will be a revolutionary development for aviation in the UK and for NHS Scotland.”

Professor Massimiliano Vasile of the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and Director of the Aerospace Centre of Excellence, said: “This innovative project builds on years of research developed in the Aerospace Centre, to create the first UK drone delivery network providing a vital support to health services in Scotland.”

Critical supplies

Fiona Smith, AGS Airports Group Head of Aerodrome Strategy and CAELUS Project Director, said: “The CAELUS project is set to revolutionise the way in which healthcare services are delivered in Scotland.

“A drone network can ensure critical medical supplies can be delivered more efficiently, it can reduce waiting times for test results and, more importantly, it can provide equity of care between urban and remote rural communities.

“As well as being able to undertake live flights we can 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. We will also work with local communities to ensure they understand why and how the drones will be used.”

Live flight trials will be operated by CAELUS consortium member Skyports.

NHS Grampian’s Program Lead for Innovation, Hazel Dempsey, said: “Ultimately, we want to explore if drone technology can speed up diagnosis and treatment of medical problems. 

“This has the potential to improve services for those whose care is dependent on rail, ferry or airline timetables and help keep people at home where they can be supported by families and loved ones.”