Since the announcement of our partnership with the Medical Drone Service (MDS) consortium back in 2019, a lot of progress has been made. For this testimonial, we had the pleasure of interviewing Robert, Drone Operations Manager of the ANWB Medical Air Assistance (Dutch HEMS - Helicopter Emergency Medical Services) who Avy has been working closely with over the past couple of years, to dive into the partnership from an operator’s perspective. We also got talking to Quirijn, Strategic Business Developer from PostNL, who sheds light on the logistical side of the project. They are the two key partners of this consortium as they are renowned in their fields: ANWB providing medical air assistance for the past 25 years with more than 9,000 flights a year, and PostNL, the biggest logistics company in The Netherlands with strong ties to the healthcare market.
With this client case, we aim to demonstrate the importance of collaboration when it comes to building the infrastructure for a future with medical drone deliveries. We explore the logistical challenges experienced in healthcare and the possible solution to these being long-range drones, which led to the formation of the MDS. To round it up, we ask how it’s been working with Avy and what their vision is for medical drone deliveries in The Netherlands.
The healthcare logistics challenge
The core business of hospitals, labs and pharmacies is care. Simply put, bringing care to patients. However, a lot of that consists of the logistics around bringing the medicine from one point to another and all the administration that goes with it. Hospitals are so big that they say that 70% of the healthcare processes are logistics - that’s a lot!
Quirijn works for the health team at PostNL, whose core focus is looking at how they can help hospitals and bigger laboratories with facilitating their logistical processes and making it easier for them. This includes transporting medicines throughout the whole of The Netherlands and sometimes Belgium, bringing medicines from warehouses to hospitals, hospitals to labs, basically all B2B and B2C services via road. Healthcare organisations are struggling with their logistics in a number of ways:
- Speed of delivery: The speed of transportation is important because certain diagnostics are urgent and it becomes critical that they get transported from one location to another in a certain timeframe.
- Increased congestion: The increased rush on the highways is getting in the way of delivering urgent care at the right time, in the right place.
- Shift towards centralised healthcare: It’s about bringing healthcare to patients at home and changing business models to become more cost efficient.
Hospitals just want to focus on their patients and provide them with the care they need and not have to worry about logistics, or whether medicine will be delivered on time for the operation, or whether it will go to waste during delivery. With care moving more towards homes, PostNL wants to play a pivotal role in this shift by facilitating the transport of medical goods straight to the patient. Efficiency and speed are extremely important and when you’re able to help as a logistic partner, it becomes a good fit.
The route to partnership
In the medical sector there are a lot of ideas and assumptions that drones can help with the logistical problems previously mentioned. The MDS was started as a joint initiative between ANWB and PostNL to investigate how drones can be used to deliver healthcare at the right time, at the right place.
Once talks began between ANWB and Avy, it soon became clear that the parties alone were not enough - we needed more partners with other competencies and therefore came in contact with PostNL. The roles became clear:
- ANWB: the drone operator that develops and executes drone operations
- POSTNL: commercial side of the project, they look for medical partners and keep in contact with them and in the end provide the medical partners with a logistical solution by drone - or by road, boat/ship. Hence, providing them with the total solution for the healthcare market.
Together with PostNL the MDS consortium was formed different roles were defined:
- Technology partners: Avy is one of them, but also KPN and maybe in the future there will be more hardware or software providers.
- Medical partners: they are the most important ones in the project. Sanquin, the national blood bank, Erasmus Medical Centre, one of the biggest hospitals in NL. Then we have Certe, a laboratory in the northern part of NL and Isala hospital, a hospital group in the middle part of The Netherlands. For the current 4 medical partners, routes have been defined and parts of the route where the drone can already fly, have been set up.
“Our partners really believe in this new way of distribution and the reason they invest now! Together we develop the drone service and we make sure to get the building blocks like IT, data and infrastructure on point by the time we start operations with our drone. They are ready for innovation and are leading in this medical drone market.” - Quirijn
Medical Drone Service as a solution
When exploring the use case of drones for healthcare in The Netherlands and anywhere really, it’s clearly about the long term vision and seeing past the initial hurdles, as Robert states, the benefits of using a drone are still being investigated. The goal is clear and the project works step by step towards this goal. During this process, we validate the assumptions we make and complete the business case.
“We share our learning points and consider that an important step towards making these medical partners understand the complexities that come with the work - there’s a lot of work to be made. Nevertheless, last year we did a lot of work, together with Avy and I’m most proud of the fact that we do a lot of BVLOS flying.”
I think we are the first ones with that much BVLOS flying. We can fly up to 6km in the area where we have exemption and we’ve done more than 200 flights last year. We were also given exemption to control the drone from a small remote control centre. It’s a very small first step, but a very important step. When looking at a future with autonomy and the thought of being able to solve these challenges with a drone, a world full of opportunities opens up, where you can bring everything on time, relieve time from doctors and pharmacists and ensure that patients get the care they need.
When discussing the progress of current operations, Robert was vocal about the status emphasising that, “currently the problem is that we have an operation in our minds, but challenges arise from all sides making it hard to perform it.”
- Regulations: Sure there is an EU regulation at the moment, but that is more a legal framework. There are a lot of operational points that will need to be addressed in the upcoming years.
- Healthcare structure: The way healthcare facilities are currently organised must think about this new transport modality and how this could be implemented in the current system or question whether something should change to make it more efficient. According to Robert, from all sides we must change things, and changing mindsets takes time.
- Difficult use case: We have the most difficult use case when taking into account flying in an urban setting in The Netherlands, a very dense country with a busy and special airspace. It’s a shared airspace that not only includes airports but has a number of other stakeholders. They must all fly in the airspace controlled or uncontrolled, and may need to be involved in how drones can be safely integrated into shared airspace. Speaking with the other air users, building relationships and ensuring public acceptance, is a big part of the project.
“We understand that we have to do a lot of work, but it’s about all the building blocks that we’re putting together and hopefully in 3 years we’ll be able to fly our missions. However, we were granted exemption for a 15km route between Meppel and Zwolle. I think it’s very unique that we’re flying between 2 hospitals in NL and I’m very proud of that.” - Robert
Why choose Avy as drone partner?
Before officially starting the MDS, it took 2 years to figure out the process, the what and how of the project. It’s nice to see that Avy understands the challenges and supports us with an attractive deal, that isn’t too risky and with which we can explore drone flying.
“Avy being a start-up is a benefit for us at this moment, we see that you are very serious in your business, that you understand that you must listen to us, to our medical partners etc. and that’s the way of how you think and how you are, which is very attractive to us. We like that because you show that you also want to learn about what we’re doing and how we’re doing.”
What we’re seeing being done by other drone manufacturers, that focus on medical and healthcare delivery is that they simply make a drone and that’s it. Avy thinks behind the drone: you start with the process, exploring how organisations work, what kind of products these stakeholders would like to transport etc.
“It’s not all about the drone, sure you can always go into the technical questions after but you start with the right question. That is the difference when regarding other drone manufacturers where you simply buy a product and then good luck with it.”
The sky’s the limit
When asked about their hopes for the future, we concluded our interview inspired to keep the ball rolling - or drone flying in our case.
“To have one first operational route by the end of 2022 - it's not very likely that we do it over the city centre of Rotterdam, but maybe between Meppel-Zwolle in a sparsely populated area, but we must go and work towards one regular operation.” - Robert
“I truly believe that in the future, drones will be integrated in our airspace. My dream is to have an infrastructure between all hospitals, labs and other medical parties. Once we’ve connected the whole of the Netherlands by drones, healthcare will always be on time. Besides being sustainable, efficient and always available, doctors will be able to focus on their jobs, whilst we do the logistics by drones. Due to decentralisation, drones will also be able to reduce a lot of costs. Expensive equipment for urgent diagnostics can be put in 1 location, whilst benefiting other hospitals who can also make use of it by sending their samples for analysis via drone. For now we wait until we can fly without any limitations. It's going to take a while, but I do believe in this new way of distribution.” - Quirijn
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