After identifying how drone technology could change the way medical supplies are moved around London, former courier and now CEO of Medical Logistics Alex Landowski got off his bike and is in the process of taking UAV deliveries to the air.
Traffic is the problem, says Alex Landowski. The co-founder and managing director of Medical Logistics isn’t just talking about the day-to-day frustrations of getting across town by car for anything as routine as a business meeting. He’s discussing the main obstacle to the reliable delivery of urgent medical supplies such as blood. You can dispatch couriers on bicycles and motorbikes – and Landowski has plenty of first-hand experience of this as a former rider – but increasingly, as London’s arterial routes become ever more congealed with road vehicles, his thoughts have turned to harnessing uncrewed aerial vehicle (UAV) or drone technology. Medical Logistics has been instrumental in the first UAV flight-corridor trial in the UK for delivering time-critical medical cargo to an NHS hospital.
Medical Logistics works with what Landowski terms ‘non-blue-light’ deliveries such as blood samples for scientific analysis in laboratories, X-rays, surgical equipment and medications. But it was the case of blood transfusion supplies for private hospitals “that led us to thinking about drones. The sort of deliveries we make are time-critical and need to be reliable.”
There are risks associated with using non-specialist couriers bundling in medical supplies with non-urgent deliveries, he says. “If it’s blood for transfusion and it goes missing, that’s bad because there is a shortage and it’s expensive. If it’s a blood sample taken by a GP, mistakes mean that the patient needs to be called back in. Specimens have a shelf-life and so you can see the consequences of running late – it could affect someone’s life.”
Anyone doubting whether there’s a gap in the market for moving medical supplies around the metropolis by drone should have been in town the day I interviewed Landowski at the Medical Logistics headquarters, just a stone’s throw from Farringdon underground station in central London. My journey across the city that could usually have been measured in minutes on the tube network became a two-hour walk, as much of Britain’s labour pool took industrial action. Private motorists gridlocked the roads as they tried to get to work, solidifying bus lanes in the process. The best and only way to cross the capital was on foot.
“On days like today,” says Landowski, “when you’ve got protests across every sector, you can imagine there are problems.” Not long ago, he reminds me, “there were people gluing themselves to the motorway and not letting traffic through. All you can do is hope that you can deliver on time. There are more and more private cars, and the roads are getting narrower. Cycling is sometimes an option in the city itself, but if you’ve got to go around the North Circular with a blood delivery, you can’t do that.”
Despite the swathe of traffic alleviation initiatives to make urban driving easier, there is, according to Landowski, a lack of joined-up thinking at governmental level. “I think maybe they hope that drivers will just give up and the roads will become better because of that. But if you’re delivering crucial medical supplies, you can’t just give up. You’ve got to get through.”
“My background is in logistics,” says Polish entrepreneur Landowski, who started his career hacking around London on a bicycle as a self-employed dispatch rider. “All you needed was to be fit, skinny and just get on with it.” It helped that Landowski was seen as the fastest courier in the area after winning various underground bike courier street races. He went on to become London’s first medical bicycle courier before rising through the ranks to become a controller co-ordinating delivery movement for TDL in London. All the while he could see a niche in the market for “quality medical couriers. I tried to make a difference in the company I worked for. It was a massive company with hundreds of millions in turnover. In my mind I could go to the manager and say: ‘Look, I’ve got this great idea to make the operation more efficient.’ But in a business that size, change takes forever.”
“Of course,” he adds, “I understand now that I was young and naïve and from a business perspective that’s not how things work.” Unable to make a difference from within the corporate structure, Landowski, a former journalist and social studies dropout with debt-ridden failed ventures in Poland behind him, decided that “the only way I could change anything was to do it myself. So, I quit my job in early 2017 and began to get used to being a business owner providing healthcare logistics in London.”
At this point Landowski explains that in this context ‘logistics’ means “delivering stuff in a similar mode to Amazon. The difference is that we are focused 100 per cent on medical.” Until recently there were no specialists concentrating exclusively on healthcare: “Maybe it was 20 to 30 per cent of their business” while, to keep costs down, companies would be using the same driver to deliver whatever else happened to be in the packet. This model “affected the service, because as a courier you don’t care what’s in the package. You just want to get as many drops in as you can because that’s how you get paid.”
The problem comes when “there is blood that needs to be delivered in one or two hours but could have been in transit for longer because the couriers are being redirected to drop off a burger or some other non-urgent stuff”. It is not an optimal situation, says Landowski, who has seen couriers putting blood supplies in food delivery bags: “If you’re not focused on medical, then the business model is simply to maximise your profits. So, you put all the jobs together.”
Then he hit the concept of drawing on his field experience to specialise exclusively in providing a delivery service for the private medical sector with time guarantees at a price premium. Landowski’s break came when his former employer outsourced the time-critical medical side of their business to the newly formed Medical Logistics.
A year ago, if you’d asked Landowski whether UAVs could be part of the solution to the increasing challenges faced by Medical Logistics, he would have reacted (“as would most of the public”) by saying that “they were toys with cameras on them”. Having come to realise that commercial drones are “serious vehicles” that could become part of the logistics mix, he found there was a barrier to engaging in discussions with potential stakeholders “who thought that they were either those annoying little things that buzz around everywhere” or would create a ‘Futurama’-style chaos of unregulated aerial traffic over cities. Yet the reality is different as Landowski becomes more involved in the ‘step-by-step’ process of trialling the UK’s first medical supplies drone flight corridor to an NHS hospital.
Landowski explains how – to date – more than 1,889km (1,174 miles) have been flown during 130 flights, and claims the first legal BVLOS (beyond visual line of sight) UAV flight in UK in a commercial trial context. “BVLOS is important because legally in the UK you can’t fly a drone if you can’t see it.” (The Civil Aviation Authority’s policy document CAP722 on UAVs in regulated airspace defines BVLOS operations as those of an “unmanned aircraft beyond a distance where the remote pilot is able to respond to or avoid other airspace users by direct visual means”.) Landowski says it’s taken two years to get all the permissions in place. “The CAA had to approve the 32km-long corridor, and within that corridor we’ve been trialling our flights between two hospitals in Coventry and Rugby. This is above populated areas, which is another major milestone.”
‘If you’re delivering crucial medical supplies, you’ve got to get through’
The trials so far have confirmed the main advantage of UAVs over road vehicles, in that results are showing an average time saving of 40 per cent. “We ran the trials with our own electric vans running in parallel. We’re talking about a rural area here. There’s not much going on between Coventry and Rugby and we still managed to save 40 per cent. We have also flown them in winter conditions when you couldn’t drive a car because of flooding, and they got through. You can fly drones in most conditions.”
The trials have also established that “drones are better for the planet than traditional means of transport like diesel vans: they provide a 99.8 per cent decrease in CO2 emissions and even when compared to electric vans, they still provide a 90.5 per cent decrease”. While the aim is for “this tech to help 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, this tech has the potential to save time, the planet, and lives”.
With the advantages of using UAVs in medical supply delivery established, a future in which they are routinely used in this context is in the public interest. And yet Landowski is worried that the same public has misconceptions about UAVs that border on moral panic. Quite apart from the frequently expressed prediction that the sky will be clogged with drones buzzing around in unregulated airspace by unlicensed users – the CAA says you must register for an operator ID “before flying most drones” – “I’ve had to deal with an enquiry from someone concerned about their privacy – literally worried that these medical supply UAVs will be taking photographs through their windows. It’s ridiculous because these vehicles don’t have cameras capable of doing that… and besides, you’re not worried about someone on a passing bus taking a photograph of your garden.” It would help the public paranoia about drones congesting the skies to think about them as being more like trains: “You don’t have random trains just coming along from nowhere. It’s the same thing.” Perhaps more seriously this lack of public understanding could “form a barrier to adoption”.
Currently, drone delivery infrastructure is built with different ideas being tested. “The most common idea is that you have a kind of helipad, which in an ideal world you’d put on the top of a building from which the drones take off and land in an autonomous procedure.” Instead of dispatch riders picking up a bag and setting off in their electric van, motorcycle or courier bike, items for delivery will be prepared “by robots and sent to the drone on a conveyor. There are already automated distribution systems in labs and the same technology can be used for loading drones.” Landowski points out that during all stages on the NHS trials, they have been performed manually, “but the technology is all there, even down to the pads that will allow the drones to land on walls.”
The next stage for Medical Logistics is to run more trials in the private sector, where Landowski sees the opportunity for integrating this “technology-in-search-of-an-application” into the commercial cargo delivery space. “I’m an entrepreneur. I want to develop this idea from a business point of view. We all know that the technology has been here for some time, and it is 100 per cent usable. I want to find out who’s serious about it, rather than just hoping to raise venture capital from another investor and then it all goes away for a year. I want to bring this into real life, which is why we’re starting to talk to private healthcare providers.”
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