Apian will create drone pads at hospitals and warehouses in the UK © 2020 Annalisa Russell-Smith via UK Space Agency
Apian will create drone pads at hospitals and warehouses in the UK © 2020 Annalisa Russell-Smith via UK Space Agency

Drones will use 'air corridors' to deliver Covid medical supplies

healthcare drone firm is collaborating with the UK government to build “droneway” supply routes in the sky, enabling more efficient delivery of Covid tests and PPE.

The UK Space Agency is working with drone firm Apian to create a “network of secure air corridors”, known as the NHS Air Grid, to overcome logistical challenges in the UK medical supply chain.

The project – called Dreadnought – will use Apian’s drones to carry Covid-19 samples, test kits and PPE to labs and hospitals. The scheme aims to tackle medical supply chain issues such as unnecessary physical contact, inefficient use of staff time, and logistical disruptions, such as courier call-out waiting times.

The Space Agency said: “Apian will scale the work from their drone trials by creating the UK’s NHS Air Grid, a network of secure air corridors designed to safely, rapidly and effectively enable drone delivery across the NHS.

“Apian is creating these corridors by working closely with the Civil Aviation Authority, UK Space Agency and the emergency services.”

Based at Mid and South Essex NHS Foundation Trust’s Broomfield Hospital, Apian will establish “drone pad infrastructure” to enable deliveries to hospitals, warehouses and laboratories.

The Space Agency said: “Apian provides the interface between the healthcare and drone industries creating a more demand-driven, just-in-time system for delivering smarter, faster, cleaner healthcare. Its goal is to use evidence-based research to show how drones can improve care pathways and level up health outcomes.”

The work is part of the NHS Clinical Entrepreneur Programme, a joint initiative between the UK Space Agency and the European Space Agency, which is providing £1.3m of funding to three firms using “space-enabled technologies and services” to support the NHS.

Project Dreadnought will initially be focused on providing Covid-related supplies but could be expanded post pandemic to other medical payloads including equipment, medications and blood packs. 

Christopher Law, co-founder at Apian, said: “Covid-19 has highlighted challenges in NHS supply chain logistics. There has never been a better time to create a faster, more dependable and environmentally-friendly method of transporting medical supplies.

“We are confident that by setting up a medical drone delivery service, we’ll be able to fly samples to labs more regularly, reliably and quickly, improving patient health outcomes.”

Professor Tony Young, the NHS national clinical lead for innovation, said: “At the same time as the NHS came together to fight a pandemic and treat over 110,000 severely-ill people for Covid-19, staff have also gone above and beyond to create innovative ways for patients to get the care and kit they need alongside the UK Space Agency. 

“This study which will create droneways in the sky for vital NHS supplies is the latest in a longline of projects funded by the NHS Clinical Entrepreneur Programme to provide innovative solutions to the challenges facing the NHS for the benefit of patients and staff.”

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