Integrating drones into NHS patient diagnostic logistics systems: Flight or fantasy?

PLoS One. 2022 Dec 22;17(12):e0264669. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0264669. eCollection 2022.


Healthcare accounts for approximately 5% of emissions in developed nations, and the public healthcare provider in the United Kingdom (UK), the National Health Service (NHS), has set a target to reach net-zero emissions by 2040 without detriment to its quality of patient care. With Uncrewed Aerial Vehicles (UAVs; a.k.a. drones, UAS, or RPAS) starting to be used in healthcare systems outside the UK, there is interest in how they could be integrated into NHS operations to transport diagnostic specimens. Reflecting on a business-as-usual analysis of current NHS diagnostic specimen logistics across the Solent region (southern UK), this paper critically evaluates the practical reality of integrating UAV deliveries of this commodity, identifying the benefits and challenges that must be addressed to realise commercial services, including dangerous goods legislation, cargo stability, routing, and weather. In the analysis, 14 out of 79 surgeries could be realistically served by a 5m wingspan vertical take-off/landing (VTOL) UAV: seven directly, and seven via ground-based transfers. The results suggested that an average of 1,628 samples could be served by UAV each week, resulting in 42 flights/week with 10 taxi services to cover periods where weather limited flying. This equated to an approximate total service cost of £2,964/week if regulations develop to relax UAV personnel constraints. The introduction of UAVs reduced the marginal external costs (greenhouse gas emissions, congestion, and air pollution) by £196 per week and cut travel times to UAV served sites by 72% (weather permitting). Tailpipe emissions (excl. taxis), vehicle-kilometres travelled, and van costs were reduced by 20%, 20%, and 23% (respectively), but the overall system cost increased by 56%. Whilst this increase is likely to make the introduction of UAV services financially challenging, the benefits in terms of emissions and journey time savings may offset some of the additional cost and warrant further investigation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Air Pollution* / analysis
  • Delivery of Health Care
  • Fantasy
  • Humans
  • State Medicine*
  • Unmanned Aerial Devices

Grants and funding

EPSRC Grant EP/V002619/1, e-Drone, Awarded to TC and JD, UK Department for Transport via Solent Transport, Solent Future Transport Zone, Awarded to TC, The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.