Drones could be used to ferry key materials to and from hospitals in the fight against coronavirus, under a scheme backed by the UK Space Agency.

Founded by NHS staff as part of the health service’s clinical entrepreneur service, firm Apian is working to establish secure air corridors for a fleet of unmanned aircraft.

It is hoped the use of drones to carry Covid-19 samples, test kits and PPE will limit secondary transmission of the virus that could occur during the delivery process, as well as freeing up NHS staff and avoiding courier waiting times.

The project is set to be based at Broomfield Hospital in Chelmsford — which stands on a First World War airfield — with support from Anglia Ruskin University as an academic partner.

Christopher Law, who cofounded the firm, said: “Covid-19 has highlighted challenges in NHS supply chain logistics.

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“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 start-up company was founded by Hammad Jeilani and Mr Law, trainee doctors at the Barts and The London as well as Mid and South Essex NHS innovation fellows.

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The firm is now working to develop drone pad infrastructure to help the craft land and take off from hospitals, laboratories and warehouses. From there, it will look to create an air grid specifically for use by NHS delivery drones.

However, while the hybrid drones used by the firm are designed to facilitate long-distance travel, the initial path will ferry items for no longer than 20 minutes between Broomfield Hospital, Basildon Hospital and the Pathology First Laboratory in Basildon.

Other projects to include space agency backing include a mobile app using satellite technology to provide access to more affordable community transport for people wishing to go to and from Covid care providers, and a remote platform for Earth observation learning.

All will share a pot of £1.3m of funding, part of a joint initiative between the UK Space Agency and the European Space Agency (ESA).

Science minister Amanda Solloway said: “The efforts of the UK’s space sector to support our incredible NHS during the Covid-19 pandemic have been truly inspirational.

“The projects we are backing today are fantastic examples of how our leading space scientists are supporting those directly on the front line to help prevent the spread of coronavirus.”

Additional reporting by agencies

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