Former military fighter pilots have been recruited to fly drones carrying Covid-19 samples, test kits and personal protective equipment between hospitals in the UK.

Apian, which was founded by NHS staff as 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.

It is hoped that the drone delivery service 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.

The medical drones are being piloted by former RAF and Royal Navy fighter pilots from the York-based unmanned aircraft training company Flyby Technology.

The project will be based at Broomfield Hospital in Chelmsford, part of Mid and South Essex NHS Foundation Trust, and will be supported by the local Anglia Ruskin University as the academic partner.

The hospital stands on a First World War Royal Flying Corps airfield.

Christopher Law, from 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.”

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.

It is installing drone pad infrastructure so its aircraft can take off from and land at hospitals, laboratories and warehouses.

Following the drone trials, the company aims to create 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.

It is working closely with the Civil Aviation Authority, UK Space Agency and the emergency services to create these corridors.

The drones, which can carry a maximum weight of 2kg and fly about 60 miles, will fly at 300ft (90m) above ground level and are designed to fly in harsh weather.

It is a hybrid drone, which means it has the rotors of a typical drone and the wings of a plane, making it very good at flying long distances.

The drones will initially be flying between Broomfield Hospital, Basildon Hospital and the Pathology First Laboratory in Basildon.

The flight path from Broomfield Hospital to the Pathology First Lab is 22km and takes just under 17 minutes.

The flight path from Basildon Hospital to Pathology First is 11.5km and takes just over nine minutes.

The healthcare drone company is one of three new projects using space-enabled technologies and services to support the ongoing battle against Covid-19.

The project is being funded through a share of a £1.3 million grant from the UK Space Agency and the European Space Agency (ESA).

Apian founders Hammad Jeilani and Christopher Law
Apian founders Hammad Jeilani and Christopher Law (Annalisa Russell-Smith/PA)

Flyby Technology founder and former RAF pilot Jon Parker said: “It’s a privilege for the British Drone Consortium to be called upon in the NHS’s hour of need.

“The drones are supplementing current logistics, keeping the testing machines operating to capacity. This makes the whole system more efficient, bringing to bear the full capacity of the testing infrastructure.”

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.”