Coventry company trialing drone delivery of medical supplies between NHS hospitals secures investment

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A drone logistics operator which is conducting ground-breaking trials to deliver medical supplies between hospitals in the West Midlands this summer has become Minerva Business Angels’ 100th investment.

Skyfarer’s initiative could reduce waiting times for medicine and reduce traffic congestion and consequently CO2 emissions.

Minerva, which has a network of angel investors across the country, has been operational since 2010, facilitating more than £40-million of investment.

It operates through a network of institutions including Aston University, University of Birmingham and Warwick Business School.

The angel investment organisation works with scale-ups, start-up businesses and spin-out companies.

Skyfarer was set up by Elliot Parnham, who studied aerospace engineering at Coventry University, and initially started as a drone manufacturer, before switching to operations, looking at the systems and technology involved in drone flying for commercial uses.

The company has worked with various partners on developing the trials this summer, including Aston University, Altitude Angel, the world’s leading unmanned traffic management system provider, FlyPulse, a Swedish flight management system innovator, and Coventry University’s Centre for Connected and Autonomous Automotive Research (CCAAR).

Elliot’s original plan for the business was to manufacture drones based on the work he had undertaken at Coventry University and a project he had completed that was part of the Institute of Mechanical Engineers UAS challenge.

However the company pivoted when it found there was a market for a business that brings together all of the systems, the technology and the planning required to make the use of drones commercially viable.

Elliot then planned to be part of a project in Africa that would see supplies delivered to hard-to-reach areas via drone technology.

But travel restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic meant the company had to focus on UK operations.

Working with the NHS and others, the company specialises in making drone delivery possible, reducing the time it takes to move critical medical supplies to where they are needed urgently.

The trials will include distributing blood into a hospital and pathology samples between two hospitals via drone.

Skyfarer received investment from the Minerva Business Angel network to make the trials possible this summer, the money being part of a larger raise.

The investment will be spent on developing software, equipment, the technology to do the flights and connectivity equipment for the trials.

The trials will involve flying drones in an airspace surrounded by three major airports.

“We are trying to change the perception of drones,” Elliot said.

“If the operation is managed effectively with drawn out procedures and communications protocol then drones are not a risk to manned aviation. That is what we will be proving in our initial flight trials at Cranfield Airport this summer.”

Elliot also hopes to show the benefits of using drones for deliveries as opposed to current methods.

“What we are essentially solving here is the everyday issues of ground-based logistics,” he said.

“We have all been stuck in traffic. We have all had deliveries delayed due to the outdated infrastructure on the ground.

“The benefits of using drones are far reaching in comparison to ground transport, for both CO2 emissions and the costs associated with traffic congestion.”

Working with the NHS and others, the trials will involve using autonomous aircraft to reduce the time it takes to move critical medical supplies to where they are needed urgently.

Trials are set to take place this summer for the project, with the aim to reach commercialisation next year.

The trials will be the first of their kind in the UK, delivering medical supplies by drone.

Elliot said the investment from Minerva has been vital to the project reaching this stage.

“The investment has been crucial. It has enabled this summer of trials, moving into the development of our solution to get to commercialization next year.

“Without the support from Minerva we would not be able to progress our innovation into a feasible business model that provides significant operational benefits to the NHS and society in general.”

If successful, the delivery of medical blood and pathology samples by drone, rather than by vans at present, could bring a 97 per cent saving on CO2 emissions.

It could also significantly reduce waiting times for medical supplies.

“If blood is not processed within 12 hours once it leaves a person’s arm, a lot of it is wasted,” Elliot added.

“The current infrastructure and process does not allow blood to be moved quickly enough around the UK.

“It’s one of the major inefficiencies of the current infrastructure and it affects many lives.”

Steve Churchhouse, a Minerva Angel investor who invested in Skyfarer said: “I invested in Skyfarer because I saw a great opportunity this company has in helping to pioneer the infrastructure to revolutionise the delivery market using drones.”

Alexis Toft, Head of Minerva Business Angels said: “This is another example of where our angels rally around a company in its early stage of development to help it on its journey.”