Drone deliveries soar to rural Scotland during coronavirus outbreak | News from the United Kingdom


Ten weeks after the peak of the coronavirus pandemic, there is still an acute shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) and Covid-19 test kits in the United Kingdom, particularly in rural and remote areas.

On the Isle of Mull in the Inner Hebrides, however, essential supplies arrive up to four times a day. They are transported from the mainland by drone in a test that could lead the NHS to regularly use drones to transport medical supplies and samples to most of the roughly 90 inhabited islands of Scotland.

Unmanned aircraft industry hopes that showing public drones can help fight Covid-19, perhaps even saving lives by speeding up test times, could pave the way for wider adoption of drone technology .

US investment bank Goldman Sachs thinks drones could create a $ 100 billion market if governments around the world allowed them to be used for everything from police and border patrol to infrastructure surveying vital such as decks, or even replacing mopeds to deliver pizza and fried chicken straight to your door.

It’s not just the 2,800 people in Mull who received PPE by drone during the pandemic. Another trial involves transporting PPE from Lee-on-the-Solent to the Isle of Wight. The two trials required approval from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) because the rules prohibit drone flights beyond the pilot’s line of sight.

The drones are also used to send two-way coronavirus tests to 2,500 hospitals and rural health outposts in Rwanda and Ghana. This week, the first US medical drone flight shipped a shipment of PPE to frontline workers in North Carolina.

Stephen Whiston, chief of strategic planning for the Argyll and Bute health and social services partnership, said drones could transform the speed at which doctors diagnose and treat patients in the authority’s rural community, which spans 2,500 square miles in the west of Scotland. This includes Mull and several other islands.

Whiston said, “The laboratory samples from GP surgeries here can be very ineffective, with delays ranging from a few hours to two days if the ferries are missed. When you talk about serious and changing conditions, these kinds of delays are very serious. “

The 16 km (10 mi) flight between the Lorn and Islands District General Hospital in Oban, on the mainland, and the Mull and Iona Community Hospital in Craignure, in the east of the island, takes approximately 15 minutes versus 90 to six hours by road and ferry.

Whiston said the two-week drone delivery trial, which is being conducted in partnership with drone operator Skyports and defense and technology company Thales, was scheduled before the coronavirus struck, but was accelerated by the pandemic.

A second test this winter is crucial because “Scottish weather can be very difficult,” says Whitson. If successful, he thinks drones could be deployed to the NHS in Scotland. “We will seek to further link our islands,” he said. “And we have shared what we do here with colleagues across Scotland, and there is significant interest in using it in the Western Isles, Clyde and the Grampians. “

Raymond Li, head of airline strategy and marketing for Thales, which provides flight planning and technology, said the pandemic had proven to be very timely for the drone industry, with regulators speeding up the process. approval to begin test flights.

“It will also allow us to show the public the societal benefits of drones,” he said.

“People will have seen the headlines on the drone in Gatwick [in 2018, when hundreds of flights were cancelled when a rogue drone flew over the runway] and worried about drones. Covid-19 may well change the way people see their usefulness. They will see that drones can help save lives, and people will see the benefits for themselves and their families. “

In the current trial, using a German-made Wingcopter drone, a trained operator must pilot the drone and actively steer it via a live video stream. But future costs could be significantly reduced by allowing drones to perform missions independently. Li said, “Imagine a fleet of thousands of drones doing everything from search and rescue to border patrol and food delivery. There could even be air taxis [in which people are transported in drones without pilots]. “

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Holly Jamieson, head of future cities for Nesta Challenges, a charity supporting innovation, said the actual use of drones would help spark public conversation about the use of the technology and its privacy implications.

“You have to remember that the coronavirus pandemic is a fairly exceptional event and that the public is accepting much more than we would normally tolerate. It could be the same with drones, “she said.

Nesta research suggests using drones to aid public services, including transporting NHS tests and samples and supporting police and firefighters, could save the sector £ 1.1 billion public by 2035.

Jamieson said, “People are concerned about the impact on their privacy and noise. Public engagement is absolutely essential. We have to ask ourselves who should be allowed to exploit them, where should they be allowed to go and for what purposes. This air space above our heads is an infrastructure that needs to be shaped. “


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