Use cases & solutions

The path to a nationwide network of medical delivery drones

Sunday, 15 October 2023

Boy van der Velden serves as the Business Development Manager at Medical Drone Service, a collaborative venture between ANWB Medical Air Assistance and PostNL Health & Secure. This initiative, in conjunction with several healthcare partners, is focused on exploring the potential of drones in improving healthcare delivery, ensuring it reaches the right place at the right time. Van der Velden shares insights into the latest developments in this innovative field.

The formation of Medical Drone Service, bringing together The Royal Dutch Touring Club ANWB and the largest postal company in the Netherlands PostNL, may appear unconventional. However, there's a strategic rationale behind it. ANWB Medical Air Assistance (ANWB MAA) is the foremost medical aviation company in the Netherlands, responsible for operating trauma helicopters on behalf of four trauma centers, primarily for Mobile Medical Team transport. In contrast, PostNL is not solely a logistics service provider but also plays a significant role in healthcare. Their involvement encompasses delivering medical mail to diagnostic centers, ensuring the secure transport of medications to hospitals and pharmacies, and distributing medical products such as medicines and medical devices to consumers' residences. Medical Drone Service represents a collaborative effort to gain expertise in using unmanned aerial vehicles for supporting (urgent) medical product deliveries, offering novel distribution solutions to the healthcare sector.

Why is this collaboration essential?

“The overarching goal is to establish a nationwide network of medical delivery drones, ultimately enhancing the sustainability and speed of medical transportation throughout the Netherlands. Medical Drone Service aims to provide an efficient and future-proof solution to address the increasingly demanding and competitive healthcare landscape. The healthcare sector faces unique challenges, with shortages of skilled personnel and an aging population in need of more care. The utilization of drones in healthcare holds the potential for profound impact. In comparison to other industries, healthcare confronts greater workforce shortages. The introduction of medical drones is not only logical and crucial but also indispensable for maintaining accessible and available healthcare. The primary objective of drone deployment is to expedite and bring healthcare closer to patients while strengthening connections between healthcare institutions. This encompasses tasks such as transporting blood, medications, and diagnostic samples, where drones can take the swiftest and most direct routes through the airspace.”

Extensive testing, including practical flights between hospitals, is an ongoing process. When will these operations become fully functional?

“Daily trials are conducted in controlled airspace, incorporating various drone technologies and different types of cargo. The nature of the cargo can vary, ranging from non-movable items to those requiring specific temperature controls. Furthermore, practical tests have been carried out along the Meppel-Zwolle route, with efforts underway to secure permits for permanent flights on this route that is aimed to be the blueprint for future drone flights.

What are the primary challenges to securing permission for permanent medical goods flights?

“Firstly, there's the challenge of safely integrating drones into highly congested airspace shared with manned aviation. Safety remains paramount. Secondly, the transportation of medical goods necessitates the utmost precision and reliability. It's not an easy task, but the potential benefits that Medical Drone Service can offer to healthcare are worth the effort. Eventually, operational status is only a matter of time, given the support and goodwill from all stakeholders, including government bodies, healthcare institutions, aviation authorities, and the drone sector.”

Why commence operations between Zwolle and Meppel, which isn't the most congested region in the Netherlands?

“The choice of this initial location is based on the relatively quiet airspace, allowing for a safe and straightforward launch. In addition, the hospitals in Zwolle and Meppel have a clear use case that shows the added value of our service very clearly. Success here could pave the way for expansion into more densely populated areas, where the demand for this innovative solution is most pressing.”

Within your consortium, you collaborate closely with hospitals, a blood bank, a telecom provider, and a drone manufacturer. Why this broad spectrum of partners?

“Collaboration among regional healthcare providers is expected to grow, necessitating the connection of as many stakeholders as possible. This approach enables our drones to eventually serve every affiliated hospital. The expectation is that considerable cost savings can be achieved through our service, replacing the need for numerous couriers crisscrossing the Netherlands with a more centralized control of unmanned drones. To be able to answer our many technical questions, we also work together with technical partners Avy & KPN.”

How do you ensure that the infrastructure remains accessible to a wide array of healthcare providers?

“Standardization is key. To ensure the future resilience and versatility of healthcare logistics via drones, it's imperative to avoid dependency on a single drone manufacturer or supplier. Medical Drone Service is a member of the Drone Operator Requirements Aero Initiative (DORAI). DORAI members urge technology suppliers to adhere to minimum requirements for drone platform development. These requirements encompass both hardware, such as packaging sizes and payload handling automation, and software, including interfaces for operator BVLOS Ground Control, facilitating U-Space operator responsibilities. This standardization effort ensures the interoperability and longevity of the drone infrastructure for healthcare logistics.”

Medical Drone Service is a joint initiative of the ANWB Medical Air Assistance and PostNL Health. Together with healthcare partners Erasmus MC, Isala, Sanquin, Certe, Resultlab, Amsterdam UMC, St. Antonius, Accureon and UMCG and technical partners Avy and KPN, we are investigating how drones can contribute to delivering healthcare in the right place and at the right time. time. The ambition of Medical Drone Service is to contribute to keeping healthcare accessible and available for the whole of the Netherlands. The aim of using drones is to bring care faster and closer to the patient and to connect healthcare institutions with each other. This includes matters such as transporting blood, medication and diagnostic samples. The drone can fly the fastest and shortest possible route through the air.