Helicus Aero Initiative - Safety-critical missions for medical transport by drone

In a context of need for faster research results, centralisation of laboratories, pharmacies and blood banks on the one hand and the existing mobility problems on the other hand, there is an increasing demand for alternative means of medical transport.

The Helicus Aero Initiative meets this demand. It focuses on the processing of medical transportation (e.g. medication, human tissue, as well as blood and urine samples) by using drones. This allows to achieve a fast and reliable turnaround time without further aggravating the current mobility problems.

The Helicus Aero Initiative is an ecosystem in which leading companies from different sectors collaborate intensively with innovative hospital groups. It is demonstrated in various projects at European level (SAFIR), Belgian level (Medrona) and Flemish-Brussels regional level (HAI-SCS). It concerns a cooperation between companies such as skeyes, SABCA, Baloise Insurance, NSX, Unifly, Proximus, Orange, imec, VIL and Helicus, the hospital groups GZA-ZNA, Helix and Jessa, as well as research groups from UAntwerp and KU Leuven.

Each partner excels in its field of expertise, which means that a robust total solution can be offered to hospitals and laboratories. It may be said that only by combining all this expertise the drone flights within the hospital network will become a success in good time.

Helicus was formally founded in 2016 by pilots and for doctors. ​ The team consists of medical professionals with a strong aviation background, being pilots of manned and unmanned aviation. ​ Helicus aims to support the healthcare sector in its challenge to maintain the current top quality. ​ The objective is to integrate medical logistics processes at hospital network level, acting as an operator of unmanned medical flights. ​ For some years now, the company has also been coordinating a unique ecosystem of leading industrial and healthcare organisations on international level.

skeyes continuously focuses on safe air traffic, manned and unmanned, and how to integrate both. As an UTM provider (Unmanned Traffic Management), skeyes thinks about the future and participates in several large drone projects at Belgian and European level, including Medrona. skeyes supports these projects with its knowledge and works with them to develop the UTM business. skeyes sustains both recreational and professional drone users and has an advisory role with the Belgian and European authorities in the preparation of national and international legislation. skeyes believes in the economic and societal potential of drones. The UTM sector is therefore considered to be one of the pillars of innovation for the future.

SABCA is a leading global supplier of technology to the aerospace industry. SABCA serves the largest aircraft and spacecraft manufacturers and designs, develops, manufactures and maintains components and systems. The business unit "Unmanned Autonomous Systems" specializes in autonomous drone flights for safety-critical missions. To this end, SABCA offers its partners a range of services such as drone design, payload integration, ground and flight testing, drone qualification and certification, inspection, maintenance and repair activities. In the Helicus Aero Initiative, SABCA developed an eco-system that meets aviation standards. SABCA and Helicus jointly operate flights over the densely populated city of Antwerp today and, together with all the partners, SABCA manages the ecosystem to carry out this fully autonomous flight.

NSX designs, builds and implements software based on the Normalized System Theory. Within the framework of the Helicus Aero Initiative, NSX builds and implements the software for the Command & Control Centre using next-generation evolving integrations with the various partners of this initiative. This includes software integrations for flight procedures and permissions, drone infrastructure and all this according to safety and connectivity aspects.

Baloise Insurance will insure the drone transport of medication, blood and urine samples and human tissue. This is a first for the Belgian insurance market, but given its track record and as market leader in maritime and transport insurance, Baloise Insurance is the ideal partner in this unique collaboration. From its leading position, Baloise Insurance is aware of the future trends that predict that road transport will increasingly have to make way for air transport. The European Commission estimates that the civil European drone market will amount to 15 billion euros within ten years. By organising drone transport the roads will not only be less burdened, but investments will be made in a greener society, safer transport infrastructure and on-time delivery.

Unifly is a world leader in the management of unmanned aviation. Unifly's Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM) software is currently in use on a national scale in several European countries as well as in the US, Africa and Asia. Unifly's platform allows authorities to manage and visualize drone flights in their airspace as well as to define no-fly zones. Drone operators can plan, track and validate their drones and associated flights in compliance with national and international legislation. Unifly's tracker and e-Identification BLIP works as an electronic number plate for drones. This allows drones to operate safely and reliably in the air.

After an intensive cooperation, the first medical flight between GZA Ziekenhuizen Campus Sint-Augustinus and the University Hospital of Antwerp (UZA) will take place on 25 September. This flight is unique in several aspects.

Innovation: Combining unrivalled innovative expertise to make medical transport by drone possible. The flight is fully automatic so that human errors are reduced to a minimum. In addition, the Command & Control system continuously monitors the drone flight. This means that the central system continuously measures the parameters of the drone and compares them with expected values. ​ In case of deviations, the operator-pilot in the Command and Control Centre will be alerted. ​ The operator-pilot can then (possibly) take over the control of the drone in the event of an exceptional situation.

Aviation: On behalf of Europe, the partners have worked together to help shape the air traffic organisation of the future. The Helicus Aero Initiative programme applies these concepts to medical test flights. It means that other airspace users, such as manned aviation or other future unmanned public service flights (e.g. fire brigade inspection flight) are taken into account at an operational level.

Society: The medical transport by drones will eventually ensure that doctors and consequently patients receive results on time, regardless of possible traffic jams on the road. In line with the hospital reforms of Federal Minister for Health Maggie De Block, hospitals are increasingly working together in networks. ​ This evolution is necessary to ensure the current high quality of healthcare in the future. The network organisation naturally leads to an increasing demand for efficient urgent transport, which risks further aggravating the current ground-based traffic problems. ​ Drones do not run into delays due to traffic jams or traffic lights and thus avoid the growing transport problems on the road. Moreover, the distance to be covered is shorter and the road network is less burdened, so that we contribute to a greener society.

The medical flights between hospitals and laboratories will be coordinated from the Command & Control Centre (C2C), which is situated in The Beacon, the IOT hub of Antwerp. The systems monitor the parameters of the drone during the flights, which are carried out fully automatically, thus reducing human errors to a minimum. The system triggers the operator-pilot if measurements are received that deviate from the expected values. In the event that an exceptional problem does occur, the operator-pilot can take control of the drone manually.

The drones and their freight fly from roof to roof, at a cruising altitude between 90 and 50 metres and with an average ground speed of 60 km/h. This means that the drones remain within the limits of the so-called Low Airspace. A number of flights will be scheduled in the coming months with the aim of organising a weekly flight day.

In parallel with the further test flights and technological developments, the doctors from the GZA-ZNA, Helix and Jessa hospital groups are working intensively to obtain a high-quality solution in areas such as packaging, temperature conditioning and flight frequency. This is done in a structured way through targeted focus groups.

GZA Ziekenhuizen include three campuses: Sint-Augustinus in Wilrijk, Sint-Vincent in Antwerp and Sint-Jozef in Mortsel. The group strives to equip its services with advanced technology, both medically and logistically, in order to optimise the quality of care and patient safety. The supply of care is constantly being adapted to new evolutions and needs of patients, care providers and the government. GZA Ziekenhuizen has about 3,200 employees and about 400 doctors. Every day, some 1,300 patients find their way to GZA Hospitals.

ZNA (ZiekenhuisNetwerk Antwerpen) offers accessible and high-quality healthcare for every patient. We evolve along with technology in the interests of our patients. The group comprises three general hospitals, seven day centres, six specialised hospitals, a psychiatric care home and a residential care centre. ZNA employs 6,000 people, including some 600 doctors. These employees take care of around 5,000 patients every day. With more than 1,000,000 consultations, lab tests and medical images a year and some 120,000 admissions, ZNA is the largest healthcare provider in Belgium.

At the end of 2016, GZA and ZNA announced that they would enter into a sustainable collaboration in the future. Currently, the laboratory for pathological anatomy is already working together as the first centralized service within the network. In addition, work is continuing on the development of a shared future strategy for the pharmacy. As a result of this growing cooperation, laboratory samples and pharmacy preparations must be able to move quickly between the various campuses. Drones offer a solution: they avoid the mobility problems on the Antwerp roads and have to travel a shorter distance, so that laboratory samples and medication reach their destination much more quickly.

As an accredited supra-regional reference hospital, Jessa Ziekenhuis offers a wide range of innovative and high-quality medicine and patient care. We want to provide warm care to our patients and their families and actively involve them both in the individual care process and in the hospital's policy. Together with the Sint-Franciskus Hospital, the AZ Vesalius and the Sint-Trudo Hospital, we are fully involved in the development of the South-West Limburg clinical network. In addition, there is also an established collaboration with primary care providers. Jessa has more than 3,200 employees and more than 350 doctors.

Helix includes the hospitals UZA (Edegem), AZ Klina (Brasschaat), AZ Monica (Antwerp and Deurne), AZ Sint-Jozef (Malle), AZ Rivierenland (Holy Family Rumst and AZ Sint-Jozef Bornem and Willebroek) and the residential care and rehabilitation centre De Dennen (Malle).

Thanks to the intensive cooperation within the network, Helix can fully commit to quality care and bring innovative treatments and techniques to the patient more quickly. In this way, Antwerp patients find all care – from basic specialist to highly specialised care and innovation – close to home. Within the digital and virtual evolutions in healthcare, Helix focuses on sustainable, human innovation.


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About skeyes

skeyes ensures the safety and efficiency of air traffic in Belgium 24/7. The skeyes air traffic controllers manage over 3,000 aircraft every day, which makes up over a million flight movements per year. The autonomous public company is active at the heart of Europe, in one of the busiest and most complex sections of airspace of the continent. skeyes is active at Brussels Airport and at the airports of Antwerp, Charleroi, Kortrijk, Liège and Ostend. Thanks to its CANAC 2 control centre skeyes manages the flight movements above Belgium and a part of Luxembourg up to an altitude of 7,500 metres (*). The company relies on its nearly 900 experienced staff members who are at the service of their customers: airline companies, airports, the aviation sector and the authorities. skeyes also develops innovating services regarding drones and contributes to a sustainable future of the aviation sector, among other things with respect to the environment.

skeyes is a member of FABEC, a joint airspace block (Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Germany, France and Switzerland) with the aim of improving air navigation efficiency in the heart of Europe in the framework of the Single European Sky.


(*) The upper airspace of the Benelux countries and North West Germany is managed jointly with the EUROCONTROL centre in Maastricht. 


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