Lancashire and South Cumbria NHS providers are revolutionising the way medical samples are delivered between hospital sites with the use of drone technology.

University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay NHS Foundation Trust (UHMBT) and Lancashire Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust (LHTR) will be trialling electrically charged drones for pathology sample deliveries, cutting delivery times across the region by over an hour, optimising the operation of pathology labs and speeding up access to results.

Professor Anthony Rowbottom MBE, clinical director for pathology at LHTR, said: “This important project will revolutionise deliveries across a specific part of Lancashire and South Cumbria and provide valuable insight into how this can be expanded across a larger pathology partnership network.

“Not only will this expedite the transfer of patient samples but if successful could provide scope for branching into other NHS services and, in the not-too-distant future, should be seen as standard practice. In the long-term, with the right ambition and direction, why not aspire towards potentially extending drone use to home delivery for patients.”

The drones will be used to transport medical samples between the Royal Lancaster Infirmary, Westmorland General and Furness General Hospital initially. In the second phase of the trial there will be a simulation of a potential expansion to Royal Preston Hospital.

Currently, vans travel between hospital sites multiple times a day, in order to deliver samples. The new initiative will have a positive impact on reducing carbon footprints.

Phil Woodford, director of corporate affairs at UHMBT, said: “It typically takes anything from 60-90 minutes to drive a van between the RLI and FGH whilst spewing out pollutants that damage the atmosphere and our health.

“Travel time door-to-door with the drone will be achieved in around 15-20 minutes – slashing the normal time by up to 70%. It also has the potential to aid clinical decision making with the removal of unnecessary transport delays.”

The trial was selected as one of 17 projects to be part of the government’s Future Flight Challenge. The 20-month-long project will receive around £1.4million in UK Research and Innovation Funding.

UHMBT and LHTR will be working with local enterprises Digital & Future Technologies and Miralis Data Limited. They have also gained support from the Civil Aviation Authority in order to fly almost silently within their own dedicated airspace 250-feet above ground level.

Gary Cutts, Future Flight Challenge director, added: “Over the past few years we’ve seen rapid developments in all aspects of the aviation system. From cutting the length of time someone waits for medicine to arrive, to supplying greener ways to travel, these 17 projects will deliver real benefits to people across the UK.”

Drone technology has been gaining popularity within the healthcare sector. Last month Boots became the first UK pharmacy to deliver prescription medicine by drone, while July 2022 also saw the announcement of the first drone trial to deliver chemotherapy.