A healthcare technology startup founded by two trainee doctors who are self-confessed “aviation nerds” has been given the backing of the UK Space Agency to help with the response to COVID-19.

Apian, part of the NHS Clinical Entrepreneur Programme, aims to establish a network of secure air corridors for electric drones to navigate via satellite-enabled GPS. Each drone will be able to carry COVID-19 samples, test-kits and PPE. Using drone technology will avoid courier call-out waiting times, free-up NHS staff, reduce unnecessary physical contact and minimise the risk of secondary transmission of the virus.

Apian’s “Project Dreadnought” will be based at Broomfield Hospital near Chelmsford. The hospital is part of Mid and South Essex NHS Foundation Trust and is supported by Anglia Ruskin University as the academic partner alon with SYNLAB and Pathology First, Skylift UAV, Flyby Technologies and Electric Aviation.

Startup to create new standards for drone use for NHS

Apian was founded by trainee doctors Hammad Jeilani and Christopher Law who are also Mid and South Essex NHS Innovation Fellows. Apian is installing dronepad infrastructure so its aircraft can take-off from and land onto hospitals, laboratories and warehouses. The startup is also creating new standards and best practice guidelines; written by the NHS, for the NHS.

Hammad Jeilani explained: “As doctors in training in Barts in London, we saw that there were logistical issues in the NHS. We thought ‘hang on a second, we could fix these with some innovative technologies’. And that was picked up by Professor Tony Young of the NHS Clinical Entrepreneur Programme who saw ‘it is a crazy idea, but let’s see if it can happen – and here we are.”

Both Jeilani and co-founder Christopher Law are self-confessed “aviation nerds” with a long standing interest in aerospace and space technologies.

“This all began back at school,” explains Jeilani. “We’ve had a long standing passion for the aviation and space industries and we’ve been following the innovations which were happening for a number of years quite closely and we saw it as at the forefront of innovation.”

“But combined with our medical knowledge at university we realized, that, actually, this innovation which is happening here in the aerospace sector in the space industry surely could be applied to the medical industry and surely we could benefit from that amazing technology as well. And that sparked the idea when we actually were looking at some of the disparities in health provision.”

COVID “accelerated project by a few years”

Apian’s co-founder Christophe Law said: “We were always were aviation nerds but medicine was always at our hearts.”

“Improved patient outcomes is really the key to our value and combining those two made the most sense. COVID accelerated our project by quite a few years. Now we are doing a project where you’re delivering items for clinicians and improving patient health outcomes through evidence based research.”

Law added that as well as making vital deliveries, drone deliveries would also cut carbon emissions. “In this world, everyone is talking about sustainability and having cleaner way of delivering items, and what better way to do it then drone which are fully electric.”

Secure corridors to be created for NHS drone deliveries

Apian will scale the work from their drone trials by creating the UK’s NHS Air Grid (NAG), a network of secure air corridors designed to safely, rapidly and effectively enable drone delivery across the NHS. The startup is creating these corridors by working closely with the Civil Aviation Authority, UK Space Agency and the emergency services.

Apian will provide 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.

While Apian’s current task to rapidly deliver COVID-19 samples and PPE is in line with both Government and NHS priorities, NHS England anticipates that the recovery-phase of this pandemic can significantly benefit from drones delivering other medical payloads including equipment, medications, blood packs and more. Investing in the solution will continue to provide the NHS with an enhanced logistics system even after the pandemic is behind us.

Earth Observation learning platform also backed by UK Space Agency

Also being backed today is the delivery of a remote platform for Earth Observation learning. The collaboration, led by the University of Edinburgh, builds on the Earth Blox (Quosient Ltd) cloud-based software for harnessing planetary-scale satellite-intelligence.

The collaboration will provide distance learning support to students who would have been studying Earth Observation science. Earth Observation students will be our next generation of climate change specialists, weather forecasters and digital pioneers.

Earth Observation courses involve frequently being in a laboratory and completing practical exercises, and the funding will help make this possible from home – providing students at four participating universities with remote access to vast quantities of satellite data.

The projects – set to receive £1.3m of funding – have been selected as part of a joint initiative between the UK Space Agency and the European Space Agency (ESA) which has already provided one round of funding in July, worth £1.1 million, to companies developing space based solutions for issues created by COVID-19.


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