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Northumbria NHS drone trials

Drone trials seek to streamline time-sensitive medical deliveries, improve patient experiences and reduce carbon emissions.

Frequently Asked Questions

When will the trial take place?

Flights will take place from 13th February 2023 to 12th May 2023 on weekdays only.

What are the challenges with the existing supply chain and how will drones solve them?


One of the items Apian will be transporting is chemotherapy, which often has a short shelf life and needs to be administered to the patient within a small time window. Disruptions to normal logistics, including vehicle/driver cancellations, delays and changing timetables, complicate deliveries and distract staff with additional workload and may lead to expensive medication being wasted. By utilising faster, more reliable and greener transportation methods through drone deliveries, we can save the NHS time and money, minimise treatment delays and enable hospital staff to focus on what they do best - caring for their patients.

The current chemotherapy day services supply chain has come under pressure, with the demand for pharmaceutical products from the Pharmacy Production Unit (PPU) increasing. This has been caused by the rise in the Northumbrian population, as well as the added backlog from the pandemic. An on-demand drone delivery service will enable the PPU to respond adequately when an urgent formulation request is processed - reducing the delay in patient care and providing more flexibility for both the patients and clinicians. This will help reduce the wastage of expensive compounds from being manufactured when the patient is found to be clinically unable to receive it, or delays in deliveries resulting in the drug expiring.


There is a long-standing pressure for pathology samples (e.g. blood samples for testing) to be taken in time to allow ground transportation to get through the already congested city for timely analysis ahead of a patient’s surgery. A combination of poor road conditions, traffic and round-robin pick-up structure means it can take a long and variable length of time for the lab to receive the samples. This leads to a delay in results being released to clinicians, impacting patient care.

Drones would allow for a rapid and reliable delivery timescale to immediately correct for this by enabling pathology samples to be received and processed in a timely manner. This will also provide immediate efficiency gains whilst improving the Trusts’ carbon footprint. The trial forms a critical step towards the greater uptake and use of drones to support the NHS to build capability into existing, pressured supply chains.

What are we transporting?

The main focus of the trial is to transport chemotherapy medication from Wansbeck General Hospital to Alnwick Infirmary/Berwick Infirmary and pathology samples from Alnwick Infirmary/Berwick Infirmary to Wansbeck General Hospital. Other items that may be delivered include blood packs, prescriptions, medical equipment and mail.

What route will the drone take?

The CAA has approved a route between Wansbeck General Hospital, Alnwick Infirmary and Berwick Infirmary. The drone is flown in a segment of airspace the upper limits of which are 850ft.

How could I find out more about the aviation details?

Please see the full details of the Airspace Change Proposal (ACP) and the Notice to Airman (NOTAM).

How often will we fly?

The Civil Aviation Authority has approved the following flight windows. Please note, these times are the maximum hours of flying approved. The project will only activate the airspace when needed.

  • Monday: 9:45-14:15, 16:00-18:15 (6:45 hrs)
  • Tuesday: 9:45-14:15, 16:00-18:15 (6:45 hrs)
  • Wednesday: 8:45-14:45, 16:00-18:15 (8:15 hrs)
  • Thursday: 8:45-14:30, 16:00-18:15 (8:15 hrs)
  • Fridayday: 8:45-14:30, 16:00-18:15 (8:15 hrs)
  • Saturday: no flying
  • Sunday: no flying

There will be 6 flights per day at the beginning of the trial, increasing to up to 15 flights per day towards the trial completion date. Please see full details of the NOTAM.

What are the flight distances and flight times between the sites?

Wansbeck General Hospital to Alnwick Infirmary:

  • Flight distance: 34 km
  • Maximum flight time: 28 minutes

Alnwick Infirmary to Berwick Infirmary:

  • Flight distance: 73 km
  • Maximum flight time: 55 minutes

What are the characteristics of the drone?

We will be using the fully electric, vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) Swoop Aero Kookaburra III aircraft. The aircraft can take off and land vertically like a helicopter while being able to transition into horizontal flight like a plane by combining fixed wings with rotors. It weighs 17kg, can carry up to 3kg of payload and has a maximum speed of 110km/h. The drones will be operated by Skyports Drone Services, which was selected by Apian to be the project’s drone operators for this part of the trial.

Who will fly the drone?

The drones are autonomous but will be continually monitored by a trained safety pilot who will oversee the flight of the drone along the route. The pilot will be based at the command and control centre under conditions approved by the CAA.

Can the drone fly in bad weather?

As a general rule, we can fly in the same weather conditions as helicopters such as Helicopter Emergency Medical Services (HEMS). The aircraft can fly in moderate rainfall and up to 27kts of wind from any direction.

What happens if something goes wrong?

As part of gaining approval to fly, we have worked through scenarios where things go wrong and documented Standard Operating Procedures. All events will be recorded and reported to the relevant authorities, including the NHS, governing bodies and the CAA. Apian has overarching responsibility for the trial and will be on-call 24/7 to address any problems. Our flight route, procedures and equipment have been selected and approved by the CAA with the assurance that we have taken all the appropriate measures to ensure the operation is safe.

What happens if a package is accidentally dropped, or the drone malfunctions?

Approval by the regulator (the CAA) is subject to the submission of a robust safety case. There is no risk of the package being dropped as it is in the hold of the drone. The drone is extremely safe and the drone's systems have passed CAA scrutiny. The drone has multiple redundancy systems onboard to remove any single point of failure.

How noisy is the drone?

During takeoff, landing and hovering drones are comparable in sound to a lawnmower. When cruising in forward flight under the power of the propeller, the noise is barely audible.

Is it safe to fly chemotherapy by drone?

Southampton University and King's College London have researched the impact of drone flight (e.g. vibration and temperature) on redundant chemotherapy and found that the product remains stable throughout the drone flight. The project team will conduct validation flights in the first few weeks of the trial to gather the data necessary for the NHS to approve flying real medication destined for patients.

Are there any specific packaging requirements for the drugs?

Yes, the packaging must meet the requirements of UN3373 and Packing Instruction P650. In order to do so, we have partnered with Versapak whose water-tight insulated medical carriers adhere to the regulations governing the transportation of diagnostic specimens, providing infection protection and thermal insulation. The packaging selected has a higher specification than that used on current ground-based logistics. Chemotherapy spillage kits are located at every site along the supply chain.

Does the drone have cameras?

Our drones are not equipped with a camera by default. The drones may occasionally be equipped temporarily with a GoPro for validation flights and quality improvements in both logistical efficiency and airspace routing. No video content is retained

Who is the team behind this trial?

This is a joint effort between Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust, Skyports and Apian (the project leader).

Who is funding the trial?

This trial is being privately funded by Apian. No NHS funds are involved in this project.

Where is the base of operations?

The drones will be based at Wansbeck General Hospital as the hub, with Alnwick infirmary and Berwick infirmary as the spokes.

Community engagement

A period of community engagement about this project is taking place alongside the test flights. You can take part in the online survey here.

Aviation feedback

Thank you for reading this far! If you have any queries or feedback, please email airspace@apian.aero.