Secure air corridors enable drone deliveries for Covid-19 healthcare supplies

Image credit: Dreamstime

A network of “secure air corridors” could be put in place to allow electric drones to navigate via satellite-enabled GPS and transport vital Covid-19 samples, test-kits and PPE.

The initiative from Apian, a start-up from the NHS Clinical Entrepreneur Programme, should help to avoid courier call-out waiting times; free-up NHS staff; reduce unnecessary physical contact, and minimise the risk of secondary transmission of the virus.

The project, which has been backed by the UK Space Agency, will see former military fighter pilots being recruited to fly the drones from the York-based unmanned aircraft training company Flyby Technology.

Apian is installing drone pad infrastructure so its aircraft can take off from and land at hospitals, laboratories and warehouses. The firm also aims to create the UK’s NHS Air Grid (NAG), a network of secure air corridors designed to safely enable drone delivery across the NHS.

“Covid-19 has highlighted challenges in NHS supply chain logistics,” Apian’s Christopher Law said. “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.”

The drones are capable of carrying a maximum weight of 2kg and can fly about 60 miles in one charge. They will fly at around 90m above ground level and are capable of reaching their destination even in harsh weather.

In May, another trial from Skyports was launched to deliver PPE and coronavirus test kits via drone to the remote Argyll and Bute islands off the west coast of Scotland.

Professor Tony Young, the NHS national clinical lead for innovation, added: “This study, which will create 'droneways' in the sky for vital NHS supplies, is the latest in a long line of projects founded by the NHS Clinical Entrepreneur Programme to provide innovative solutions to the challenges facing the NHS, for the benefit of patients and staff.”

The UK Space Agency said it would also back another project, DriverNet, a mobile app that will use satellite technology to provide access to more affordable community transport for people wishing to go to and from Covid care providers and those looking to participate in community sport.

By using artificial intelligence to batch patients by their geolocation, they can encourage transport sharing, which could see costs and miles cut by half. This could also help reduce the 15 million NHS appointments missed each year.

NHS workers and patients will get a notification through text message or on their app when shuttle services are available in their area.

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