Silhouette of flying drone in glowing red sunset sky

UK space sector offered £2.6m for Covid-19-busting tech

Image credit: Ig0rzh - Dreamstime

The Government has offered £2.6m to the UK space sector, hoping it can utilise satellite data and drone technology in the coronavirus response.

It hopes the funding could be used to help drones deliver test kits and PPE, among other tasks to help manage infectious disease outbreaks. It is part of a joint initiative from the UK Space Agency and the European Space Agency (ESA).

Science Minister Amanda Solloway said the UK space sector has already been “world leading” in helping support the NHS, including through the development of software helping to help speed up cancer diagnoses and satellite communications for connecting GPs and their patients.

She said: “This new funding will ensure that the latest innovations will be on the frontline of tackling the unique problems the coronavirus outbreak has created, helping medical staff to focus on delivering world-class care.”

The NHS national clinical lead for innovation Professor Tony Young said that the coronavirus pandemic could easily “overwhelm any health service on earth”, and so the NHS is looking to different industries to assist with patient care.

The space sector could assist with solutions which make use of satellite communications, satellite navigation, Earth observation satellites or technology derived from human spaceflight.

Nick Appleyard, Head of Downstream Business Applications at ESA’s European Centre for Space Applications and Telecommunications in Oxfordshire, commented: “Even in normal times, satellites and space technology offer solutions to our needs in connectivity and inclusion, in resilience and logistics, and to support healthcare provision in even the most extreme situations.”

“The current circumstances challenge the space business community to show just how much it can offer, to help us through this a once in a century event. Speed is of the essence, so let us act without delay.”

Appleyard cited the example of start-up company Lanterne recently unveiling a free app to help people observe social distancing to slow the spread of coronavirus, which uses satellite data.

Meanwhile, the UK government is considering rolling out a contact tracing app, which has attracted criticism from privacy campaigners on account of potential privacy infringements which could prove difficult to roll back following the pandemic. Apple and Google are also teaming up to develop contact tracing technology that will work seamlessly across both Android and iOS.

Last year the UK Space Agency provided £5m for new health technologies inspired by working in space to support NHS England. These included providing real-time diagnosis of bowel cancer, developing more compact 3D X-ray machines and a mobile app that provided exercise plans free from air pollution for those with medical conditions such as asthma.

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