A consignment of medical supplies became the first cargo to be carried by drone across the Solent to the Isle of Wight earlier this month, destined for the Pathology Department at St Marys Hospital.
The flight was part of an innovative trial by Solent Transport, the University of Southampton and Windracers to use an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle to assist the hospital in its response to the Covid-19 outbreak.
Funded by the Department for Transport, the trial is part of Solent Transport’s Future Transport Zone project which is exploring how the Windracers ULTRA drone designed and built by the University of Southampton for Windracers, can provide a way to transport medical supplies to St Marys Hospital from the mainland. It will be a back up to the existing delivery routes which currently use the ferry service.
Windracers ULTRA set off from Lee-On-Solent airfield, landing at Binstead Airfield 13min later where the consignment of specialist insulated cases for carrying pathology samples was unloaded and driven to the hospital. The drone then completed its return flight to the mainland just over an hour later.
Staff from the University of Southampton’s Unmanned Aerial Systems team along with Windracers were overseeing the flight from mobile control centres at both airfields.
The Windracers Ultra drone is a large, twin-engine, fixed-wing platform with a carrying capacity of up to 100kg in a space around the size of an estate car boot. In the initial operations it will be carrying loads of up to 40kg.
The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has provided clearance for the drone to fly beyond line of sight with benign cargo. Now that the system has been proven, it is on standby to deliver such goods as and when needed by the NHS on the Isle of Wight. The team is currently working with the CAA to extend the service to include the carriage of other types of medical supplies which will require further approvals.
The operation will have capacity to carry out ten return flights between the airfields per day, although the number of journeys will depend on the requirements of the NHS on the Isle of Wight.
Charles Scales, CEO of Windracers said: “We are delighted to assist the NHS, by operating the largest civilian autonomous UAV in mixed airspace, and seamlessly integrating into the NHS logistics operations. This is the future of emergency cargo transportation.”
Jim Scanlan, Professor of Design at the University of Southampton said: “This is a huge milestone with not only the aircraft designed at the University but also the entire avionics system, including a ground-breaking, robust and reliable master-less autopilot system.”
Tom Cherrett, Professor of Logistics and Transport Management at the University of Southampton said: “This first flight has been invaluable in showing how the logistics at either end will have to operate to tie in with the drone operations. This will all contribute to the learning process of how such autonomous systems will function alongside traditional supply chains in the future.”
Councillor Jacqui Rayment, Southampton Cabinet Member for Place & Transport and Chair of Solent Transport Joint Committee said, “We are very excited to support this ground-breaking trial of aerial drone delivery of medical supplies, which will help improve access to healthcare and save lives.”
Councillor Ian Ward, Cabinet Member for Transport at Isle of Wight, said “I am delighted that the Solent Transport, partners of which we are one, have worked together with the DfT and the University, at such speed to make this something that can support the Island, its community and most importantly the NHS in these difficult times”.
Maggie Oldham, Chief Executive at Isle of Wight NHS Trust, said: “This successful trial shows that everything possible is being done to support our local community during the response to coronavirus.
“Longer term, this work has the potential to significantly improve services for our patients by reducing waiting times for test results and speeding up the transfer of important, possibly life-saving equipment or medication.”