Former military fighter pilots have been recruited to fly drones carrying COVID-19 samples, test kits and personal protective equipment (PPE) between hospitals in the UK.
It is hoped the drone delivery service will cut courier call-out waiting times, free up NHS staff, reduce unnecessary contact and minimise the risk of secondary transmission of the virus.
Former RAF and Royal Navy pilots, from unmanned aircraft training company Flyby Technology, will be piloting the drones.
Jon Parker, Flyby Technology founder and former RAF pilot, said it is a "privilege" to support the NHS in its "hour of need".
"The drones are supplementing current logistics, keeping the testing machines operating to capacity," he said.
"This makes the whole system more efficient, bringing to bear the full capacity of the testing infrastructure."
The drones, which can carry a maximum weight of 2kg and fly about 60 miles, will fly at 300ft (90m) above ground level.
Additionally, it is a hybrid drone, with the rotors of a typical drone and the wings of a plane, making it very good at flying long distances.
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.
Christopher Law, from Apian, said the pandemic has highlighted issues with the NHS supply chain and there has "never been a better time" to improve the transportation of 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," he said.
Apian is also installing drone pad infrastructure so its aircraft can take off and land at hospitals, laboratories and warehouses.
Following the trials, the company aims to create the UK’s NHS Air Grid (NAG), a network of secure air corridors designed to 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 project, which is being funded through a share of a £1.3m grant from the UK Space Agency and European Space Agency, will be based at Broomfield Hospital, Chelmsford, Essex.
The drones will initially be flying between Broomfield Hospital and Basildon Hospital, Essex, and the Pathology First Laboratory, also in Basildon, Essex.
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.
Cover image: A drone, set to be flown by former RAF and Royal Navy pilots to deliver COVID tests and equipment, being flown (Picture: Annalisa Russell-Smith).