A new national network of drone delivery aircraft could soon be transporting medical supplies across Scotland.
Set to launch in the second half of 2021, the CAELUS project is supported by funding from the UK Industrial Strategy and will see live drone flight trials conducted across the country.
The 18-month programme is led by a consortium of 14 academic and industry partners and headed by AGS Airports.
AGS Airports, which currently owns Aberdeen, Glasgow and Southampton airports, said the trial initiative could ‘revolutionise the way in which healthcare services are delivered’.
“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,” said Fiona Smith, Head of Aerodrome Strategy at AGS Airports.
The project has emerged from research led by researchers at the University of Strathclyde. As part of the project, they are set to create a digital blueprint of the drone delivery network.
Plans could see the network connect hospitals, pathology labs, distribution centres and GP surgeries throughout Scotland.
Strathclyde will also lead on the development of a ‘digital twin’ model of a distributed recharging network for the drones.
Prof Massimiliano Vasile, Director of the Aerospace Centre of Excellence at the University of Strathclyde, said the project could help develop the ‘next generation of NHS services’.
“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,” he said.
“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.”
In addition to developing the ground infrastructure needed to recharge the drones and the systems to control them while flying, AGS said a critical aspect of the project will be ensuring the drones can safely share airspace with civil aviation.
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Researchers said public safety, security and noise levels will all be “carefully considered” when exploring the development of the drone network.
“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,” Smith commented.
“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,” she added.
The drones deployed as part of the project will be all-electric, and in the future could be fully autonomous.
Fiona Hyslop, Scottish Government Economy Secretary, commented: “This innovative project will help position Scotland at the forefront of drone technologies to deliver essential healthcare supplies to people more quickly, especially those living in remote locations.
“It also demonstrates, once again, 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.”