Covid in Scotland: Drones to carry Covid samples

Drones are being used to carry Covid-19 samples and test kits in some parts of Argyll and Bute – in what has been described as a UK first.

image captionA three-month project has started following a trial last year

Following a trial last year, the project has been expanded, with medical cargo now being carried up to 40 miles (64km).

Flights from Mull, Clachan-Seil and Lochgilphead to Lorn and the Islands Hospital in Oban have been authorised.

NHS staff will be able to request drone deliveries.

The drones can carry a payload of up to 3kg (2lbs) and cover distances faster than they can be by road. Some of the road journeys also involve a ferry crossing.

Drone operator Skyports has been given permission by the Civil Aviation Authority for the flights.

View from a drone
image captionThe NHS in Argyll and Bute said the drones would be used in some of the region’s hardest to reach areas

Skyports said deliveries – which are being done for the Argyll and Bute Health & Social Care Partnership – were the first of their kind in the UK.

The service will initially operate between Lorn and Islands Hospital in Oban, Mid-Argyll Community Hospital in Lochgilphead, Easdale Medical Practice in Clachan Seil and the Mull and Iona Community Hospital in Craignure.

Both a scheduled service and an on-demand service will be run, with orders able to be placed by NHS staff through an online system developed by digital consultants Deloitte.

The Swoop Aero drones will be controlled from an operations centre in Oban and fly automatically along predefined routes. 

Skyports said communication between the drone and the ground control station will be provided by Vodafone’s 4G network and satellite communications to ensure connectivity coverage is provided at all times.

The project has been funded by a joint initiative between the UK Space Agency and the European Space Agency.

image captionNHS staff have been offered scheduled and on-demand services

Stephen Whiston, head of strategic planning for Argyll and Bute Health and Social Care Partnership, said the aim of the project was to improve services for patients and clinicians in “some of our most remote and island communities”. 

He added: “This three-month project working with Skyports will provide critical evidence on the real benefits this technology can bring to the NHS not only in Argyll and Bute but across Scotland.”

Skyports chief executive Duncan Walker said: “Using drone deliveries within supply chains can create significant time and cost savings. 

“This initiative is a natural progression from our recent trials with the NHS in Scotland as we scale our operations, supporting a wider network of hospitals and medical practices as they continue to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic.”

Mr Walker said it was hoped the initiative would bring permanent drone medical flights a step closer.

‘Kill switch’ failed as drone hit controlled space near Gatwick

A drone went out of control and flew into airspace near Gatwick Airport before it crashed, the Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) has said.

The drone was being used for a demonstration flight at Goodwood Aerodrome in July 2019 but the operator lost control and a safety “kill switch” had no effect, an AAIB report said.

Fifteen recommendations were made – 13 for the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).

The CAA said it was looking to address the recommendations quickly.

image captionThe safety “kill switch” failed, investigators found

The report said the unmanned aircraft, an Alauda Airspeeder Mk II, climbed to about 8,000ft (2,400m) and entered controlled airspace at a holding point for flights arriving at Gatwick, before its battery ran out and it crashed in a field.

The AAIB said no-one was injured.

The report said the audience at Goodwood had to “take cover” in a building after the 95kg drone went out of control, and when the aircraft finally crashed, residents nearby went to investigate and called police after they realised its size.

The AAIB said the CAA had assessed the operator’s application and, after amending some details, had allowed the demonstration flight, but did not inspect the drone before doing so.

After the report was published, Crispin Orr, chief inspector of air accidents, said: “There were no injuries caused by this accident but the potential for a more serious outcome was clear.”

A CAA spokesman said: “We have already made significant changes to our requirements and oversight following the incident.”

Gatwick Airport said the airspace that the drone entered was the responsibility of NATS, which provides air traffic control services.

Sussex Police said the force undertook a thorough investigation which did not identify any suspects.

image captionThe report said the aircraft climbed 8,000ft and ended up in Gatwick airspace

The incident came several months after drone sightings caused chaos at Gatwick for part of December 2018, in an unrelated incident.

Thousands of passengers were stranded while Gatwick could not operate in case drones hit and damaged a plane.

Drone users face new rules across Europe and UK

New rules are coming into force on Thursday to govern how pilots can operate their drones.

They harmonise the rules across all EU member states, Norway and Iceland – and will also be mirrored by the UK.

They make it clear where drones can be flown, as well as making it easier to trace owners.

The distinction between commercial and recreational use has been removed, potentially paving the way for more drone uses.

Drone legislation has been confusing and varied nation to nation.

DJI, one of the world’s biggest drone makers, welcomed the changes.

“It streamlines different processes and allows customers to travel from country to country without having to worry about different rules in different foreign locations,” said Christian Struwe, the firm’s director of public policy.

Under the rules, even small drones will need to be registered with the relevant aviation authority, which in the UK is the Civil Aviation Authority.

This is to ensure that authorities can trace who owns a drone if they are used in an irresponsible way or flown somewhere they are not allowed to be used.

Under the rules, there will be three new types of drone category: high, medium and low.

  • Low-risk or open-category drones will not require any authorisation but will be subject to strict operational limitations
  • Medium-risk or specific-category drones will have to have authorisation from the national aviation authority on the basis of a risk assessment
  • High-risk or certified-category drones will need to follow aviation rules, and this will apply to future drone flights with passengers

Lighthouse delivery

The low-risk category, which accounts for the majority of hobbyist drones, will be managed through the CE (Conformite Europeenne) mark, which is a process for products sold in Europe to ensure they meet health, safety and environmental standards.

But drones within this category will also have additional rules about where they can be flown:

  • A1 – drones weighing less than 250g (0.55lb) can be flown over people
  • A2 – drones weighing more than 250g but less than 2kg must be flown at least 50m (164ft) away from people
  • A3 – drones weighing more than 2kg must be flown well away from people
Drone with parcel flying over Mull
image captionThe Royal Mail recently used a drone to deliver a parcel to a remote lighthouse on Mull

Elliott Corke, director of Global Drone Training, said the new rules might give people the idea that they could unpack a drone and just fly it.

“We would encourage people to read the manual and practise somewhere safe first,” he said.

Drones will have been a popular Christmas present this year, but there is also an increased use of unmanned aerial vehicles in businesses too.

The Covid crisis has seen some places relax regulations to allow drones to be used to fly medical supplies, with a recent test from Cornwall to the Isles of Scilly carried out.

Meanwhile, the UK’s Royal Mail tested drone deliveries for the first time in December, with a parcel drop to a remote lighthouse on the Isle of Mull.

Drone nearly hit Manchester Easyjet plane window at 8,000ft

A packed Easyjet plane “narrowly missed” being hit by a drone flying at 8,000ft over Greater Manchester, an air safety report has revealed.

The UK Airprox Board, which monitors drone incidents, said the device passed “very close” to the cockpit window as it flew over Ashton-Under-Lyne.

It rated the incident on 4 September in its highest risk category.

The report added that a “definite risk of collision existed” and “providence played a major part in the incident.” 

Black drone
image captionFlying a drone above 400ft (120m) is banned under UK law

The pilot of the Airbus A320 which was flying from Manchester to Athens described the drone as being 0.5m (1.6ft) long with an estimated 10kg weight, the report said.

The jet carrying 134 passengers was flying at about 8,000ft which is 20 times higher than the legal limit to fly a drone because of the risk of a collision with a piloted aircraft.

An Easyjet spokesman said: “We are aware of the report and fully supported the investigation by providing all requested information.

“Easyjet recognises the growing popularity of drones and therefore welcomes efforts by EASA, the CAA and other regulators across Europe… to take this issue seriously and ensure that the correct measures and regulations are put in place to ensure the safety of aviation is not compromised.”