An NHS drone is used to transport Covid-19 samples, blood tests and personal protective equipment between hospitals in England.
It is hoped that the trials, supported by a £ 1.3million grant from the UK Space Agency, can establish a network of air corridors for electric drones to navigate using GPS.
The remote-controlled drone, which will be piloted by a former instructor in fast jets or military helicopters, will initially fly between Broomfield Hospital in Essex, Basildon Hospital and Pathology First Laboratory in Basildon.
The project is the idea of Apian, a healthcare drone start-up founded by Christopher Law and Hammad Jeilani.
“Covid-19 has highlighted the challenges of NHS supply chain logistics,” Law said. “We are convinced that by implementing a medical drone delivery service, we will be able to send samples to laboratories more regularly, reliably and quickly, thereby helping to improve the health of patients.”
It is hoped that the use of drones will reduce wait times for couriers, free up NHS staff, reduce unnecessary physical contact and minimize the risk of secondary transmission of the virus.
The drone is designed to fly 300 feet (90m) above the ground and withstand harsh weather conditions. This is the latest in a series of unmanned aviation industry initiatives to help fight Covid-19 in the UK and elsewhere.
In May, the Guardian reported how vital medical supplies were being shipped four times a day to the remote Isle of Mull in the Inner Hebrides as part of a similar trial.
Meanwhile, Solent Transport, the University of Southampton and Windracers have embarked on a project to transport medical supplies to St Mary’s Hospital on White Island on the island with a drone, while services ferries were reduced in April.
The announcement of the drone test in Essex comes as the UK is said to be able to complete 1 million tests a day before Christmas.
Government adviser Sir John Bell, regius professor of medicine at the University of Oxford, said it was “possible” but that there would be significant logistical challenges.
“Setting those goals is sometimes not that helpful, but I think it is possible with the technology that is online,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today program. “The problem is know how to get swabs out of people’s mouths to centers, large labs, how to get them out of the packaging, how to get them into the workflow and how to capture the data at the end?
“As always, it’s not the middle part, it’s the front-end and the back-end that are really the limiting factor that people are working on – the logistics.”