How BT Group is using its network to power UK-first drone medical delivery trial with Skyfarer

Following its recent investment in Altitude Angel, BT Group’s incubation arm, Etc. is creating partnerships to deliver transformational commercial drone operations. With its continued involvement in Project Skyway, the project that aims to build the world’s longest automated drone ‘superhighway’, BT Group has made no secret of its vision and ambitions when it comes to playing its part in the future of drones. 

The advancements drones can make in healthcare and medical delivery are starting to be explored, and a UK-first medical delivery drone trial has taken place, connecting two Midlands hospitals, University Hospitals Coventry and Warwickshire NHS Trust sites in Coventry and Rugby. This is the UK’s first over-land Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) trial, and it was completed in the heart of the UK, in complex airspace, close to urban areas.

Skyfarer Ltd, aerial logistics specialists based in Coventry with partner, Medical Logistics UK, began the BVLOS medical Drone Delivery trial in October 2022. The trial has been made possible using BT’s drone connectivity solution which enables efficient and safe drone mission communications, powered by EE, the UK’s best network.   

The 32km drone route connects University Hospitals Coventry and Warwickshire, a total of 130 flights and more than 30 hours’ worth of BVLOS flights were completed during the trial.  More than 1,900km have been flown, including 220km by drone in a single day, without any faults or failures to report. This is the equivalent of flying from London to North Africa.

“We have already hit some impressive statistics when it comes to BVLOS flight times and distances, which have all been completed without incident”, says Georgia Hanrahan, Business Manager, Skyfarer. 

There is huge potential in the long-term opportunity drones present, with recent research indicating drones could increase GDP in the healthcare sector by over £4bn by 2030, and save the sector around half a billion in costs. The trial is not only an important moment for medicine but also for drone advancement itself. BVLOS enables drones to travel longer distances, cut delivery time and reduce the costs involved in ground transportation over often-congested roads. During the trial, Skyfarer conducted a carbon emission saving study, which identified a 99.98% reduction in CO2 emissions compared to a diesel van and a 90.5% reduction in emissions compared to an electric van.

Making drone medical deliveries happen is a huge step forward, but it’s important to ensure these deliveries are carried out securely. BT prioritises data traffic for command and control of drones for real time control, as well as checking the flight route for coverage ahead of it taking place.  

The connectivity provided for this trial by BT is optimised for use at altitude and compliant with emerging UK regulation and standards. An example of this is assisting Skyfarer with restricting cellular frequencies which aren’t allowed at altitude. Collaboration between Etc., the startup incubation arm at BT Group and drone partners like Skyfarer is key to enabling real world testing, ensuring the airspace is safe for critical drone flights such as medical and blue light services.  

Skyfarer has been using BT’s drone connectivity solution to power this trial, using the EE network to make drone connectivity fast and secure by prioritising critical drone communications over standard internet traffic. The solution also provides truly unlimited data, allowing the user to send as much video footage as needed back to base from the drone directly. 

“This trial would not have been possible without our consortium of partners. BT Group’s support has enabled a considerable amount of application learning and development, pushing Skyfarer and our consortium closer to a point where turn key long range BVLOS drone operations are an everyday occurrence.

The Skyfarer and BT Group relationship will be the driving force for this revolutionary innovation and its adaption to day-to-day life. With BT Group providing the technology and communications expertise, Skyfarer is able to offer long-range BVLOS capability in return to justify and prove systems.” Georgia Hanrahan, Business Manager, Skyfarer 

Tom Guy, Managing Director, Etc. said

“This trial shows drones can do more than just delivering consumer goods, they have the potential to help save lives. Etc. want to be part of that change: using drones for medical deliveries can, in the future, ease the growing pressures on the healthcare system, where there is an ever-expanding need for hospitals to receive and transport time-sensitive medical supplies and samples.

Recent BT Group research on public perception of drones shows that over two thirds (68%) of the public believe that drones will have a positive impact on their life, citing human safety as the biggest benefit of drones”