Satellite data and drone technology can help meet challenges such as delivering test kits, masks, gowns and goggles, managing infectious disease outbreaks and supporting the health and wellbeing of the nation.
Nick Appleyard, Head of Downstream Business Applications at ESA’s European Centre for Space Applications and Telecommunications in Oxfordshire, said: “Even in normal times, satellites and space technology offer solutions to our needs in connectivity and inclusion, in resilience and logistics, and to support healthcare provision in even the most extreme situations.
“The current circumstances challenge the space business community to show just how much it can offer, to help us through this a once in a century event. Speed is of the essence, so let us act without delay.”
The government is putting £2.6 million into funding a number of projects to develop hi-tech solutions to these challenges, in a joint initiative with the European Space Agency (ESA) in support of NHS England.
The NHS – like any health service around the world – only has a limited number of doctors, nurses, and specialist equipment.
Science Minister Amanda Solloway said: “From new software helping speed up cancer diagnoses to satellite communications connecting GPs to patients virtually, the UK space sector has been world leading in applying its innovations to supporting our brilliant NHS.
“This new funding will ensure that the latest innovations will be on the frontline of tackling the unique problems the coronavirus outbreak has created, helping medical staff to focus on delivering world-class care.”
Professor Tony Young, the NHS national clinical lead for innovation, said: “This is a global crisis that would overwhelm any health service on earth without strong action from the public and their public services, which is why the NHS is looking to industries across the world – or indeed from out of this world – for new innovations that could help improve the care we provide to patients or help the NHS respond to this pandemic.”
Space-enabled solutions could include satellite communications, satellite navigation, Earth observation satellites or technology derived from human spaceflight. The UK continues to be a leading member of ESA, which is independent of the EU, having invested £374 million per year in November 2019.
Space is already playing an important part in healthcare. UK start-up company Lanterne, a spin-out from the University of Oxford, recently announced a free app to help people observe social distancing to slow the spread of coronavirus, using GPS satellite data and AI technologies.
Last year the UK Space Agency provided £5 million for new health technologies inspired by working in space to support NHS England. These included providing real-time diagnosis of bowel cancer, developing more compact 3D X-ray machines and a mobile app that provided exercise plans free from air pollution for those with medical conditions such as asthma.
Meanwhile the UK Space Agency’s International Partnership Programme uses UK expertise to support healthcare projects all over the world, including forecasting and providing early warning of dengue fever outbreaks in Vietnam through Earth observation satellites and using telecommunications to extend the reach of basic medical healthcare into remote areas in Nigeria.
The UK Space Agency and UKspace trade body are also working together to help the space sector respond to the coronavirus pandemic.
The UK space sector employs 42,000 people and generates an income of £14.8 billion each year, while supporting £300 billion of wider economic activity through other industries with satellite services such as navigation, communications and Earth observation.