Aerial drones could soon be delivering blood, organs and medical supplies in Scotland as part of a revolutionary UK-first trial involving researchers at the University of Strathclyde.

The CAELUS project will involve live flight trials of drones in the second half of 2021.

The 18-month long trial is being led by a consortium of 14 academic and industry partners headed by AGS Airports, owners of Aberdeen, Glasgow and Southampton airports and could ‘revolutionise the way in which healthcare services are delivered’.

The project emerged from research led by Strathclyde whose researchers will create a digital blueprint of the drone delivery network with the potential to connect hospitals, pathology laboratories, distribution centres and GP surgeries across Scotland.

In addition to developing the ground infrastructure needed to recharge the drones and the systems to control them while flying, a key aspect of the project will be ensuring the drones can safely share airspace with civil aviation. Critical aspects such as public safety, security and noise levels will also be carefully considered.

The system would employ electrical drones, which could in future be fully autonomous with the capability to take off and land like helicopters but fly like fixed-wing aircraft.

Strathclyde will also lead on the development of the conceptual digital twin model of a distributed recharging network for the drones.

A network will be created of around 20 hubs at airports and medical locations such as hospitals and laboratories covering the whole of Scotland which could see dozens of drones flying between them.

Green aviation

Prof Massimiliano Vasile, Director of the Aerospace Centre of Excellence at the University of Strathclyde, said: “This project originated from the research work done at the University of Strathclyde and is of real importance to the aerospace industry in Scotland and the development of green aviation. It’s the perfect example of fundamental research being applied with the potential to become the next generation of NHS services.

“Our contribution will build on the work we’ve done so far on the design and optimisation of reliable systems that are resilient to disruptions which will be very important for any service connected to the delivery of health care.”

Strathclyde’s Principal Investigator is Dr Marco Fossati, Associate Professor in Computational Aerodynamics in the Aerospace Centre of Excellence and Head of the Future Aerospace Transportation Lab.

He said: “Strathclyde has a central role in this project with cross-disciplinary input from Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, Electronic and Electrical Engineering, the Business School, Management Science, Computer Science, Civil Engineering and the Hunter Centre for Entrepreneurship.

CAELUS seeks to demonstrate a system that is not simply about point-to-point delivery in designated air corridors, which is already happening in some places; but a network that would operate in unrestricted airspace. 

“There are several hurdles to overcome in order to achieve this: collision avoidance technology for fully-autonomous drones flying beyond line of visible sight in open skies,  specific temperatures and conditions for critical payloads such as donor organs, satisfying regulatory requirements for the Civil Aviation Authority and Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, demonstrating the economic viability and reliability of such a network, and – not least of all – social acceptance, particularly in terms of visual cluttering, noise emissions and safety.

“The unmanned aerial systems world looks at drones flying as high as 400ft, but depending on our design we want to keep this limit as a soft limit with drones that can fly higher. We also want to look at drones that can fly as fast as 200 km/h or more as a peak performance.”

Rural communities

Fiona Smith, Head of Aerodrome Strategy at AGS Airports, said: “This project has the potential to completely revolutionise the way in which healthcare services are delivered in Scotland. Not only does drone technology have the ability to speed up the delivery of critical medical supplies, it could reduce waiting times for test results and, more importantly, help provide equity of care between urban and remote rural communities.

“The organisations within this consortium are some of the most skilled and experienced in drone technology. The funding from UK Industrial Strategy will allow us to work together to overcome some of the challenges associated with scaling drone operations to deliver a transport network that is technically, socially and financially viable.

“Although our focus is on healthcare, the CAELUS project could pave the way for the deployment of drone-enabled logistics in other sectors and has the potential to change the way airspace is used by manned and unmanned vehicles. It also has clear environmental benefits as it will play a key role in reducing the carbon emissions generated by existing, road-based distribution networks within Scotland.”

The project could be developed in future to include other electric aerial vehicle networks, for delivery of other products and passenger transport.The consortium comprises: AGS Airports, ANRA technologies, Atkins, Avy, Connected Places Catapult, Intelsius, Leonardo MW, NATS, Schneider Electric, SP Energy Network, SSE Network, The Drone Office, Trax International, uAvionix and the University of Strathclyde.

Strathclyde is a member of the UK Aerospace Research Consortium along with 10 other universities, which offers Government, industry and international partners (such as NASA, NRC and ONERA), a central co-ordinated research platform, access to national research facilities, and future skills development.