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ESA Space Solutions at the heart of the fight against COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic is causing widespread and varied issues in every country of the world. ESA has been successfully addressing some of the challenges caused by the COVID19 outbreak through various initiatives.

Initiatives for funding of projects to tackle COVID-19

ESA has promoted and encouraged the use of space technologies and know-how in healthcare and education for many years. In response to the global pandemic, ESA Business Applications as part of ESA Space Solutions has issued three initiatives in the healthcare and education domain to address the short-term emergency, while more are planned to support Industry in the path to COVID-19 recovery. 

The first initiative issued in March was entitled “Space in Response to COVID-19 Outbreak” and invited companies to submit ideas for Demonstration Projects developing and piloting space-based applications. Issued in cooperation with the Italian Minister for Technological Innovation and Digitalization (MID), this initiative aimed to receive proposals offering concrete solutions to rapidly support the healthcare or education sectors which are heavily impacted by the nature of this sanitary crisis. Italy, which was the first European country to be significantly affected, will host trials with local users (e.g. hospital, general practitioners, schools). Despite a short deadline, more than 120 outline proposals were received and assessed. In total, companies from 16 countries responded to the call. The Italian Space Agency (ASI) offered a funding envelope of €10 million to support the best projects.

A second initiative was issued in mid-April based on the requirements of the National Health System (NHS) in the United Kingdom (UK). The UK Space Agency (UKSA) made available £2.6 million of funding for space-enabled solutions to strengthen the response to the pandemic of the UK’s NHS. This initiative invites companies to submit proposals for Demonstration Projects addressing NHS requirements and to be piloted with healthcare stakeholders in the UK. It is open for six months, until November 15th. 

The third initiative is calling for Demonstration Projects focusing on pre-operational, space-based services in the healthcare and education sectors, to be demonstrated anywhere in Europe. Like for the other initiatives, the targeted services will be integrated and deployed quickly to alleviate the negative impacts caused by COVID-19, and help improve readiness for any future outbreaks. In this case, the initiative is open to organisations from any of the 22 Member States, with examples of possible applications described on the Space Based Services-Applications Addressing COVID-19 Outbreak web page. To know more about this funding call, please join the upcoming webinar scheduled for 15:00 CEST on 28 May 2020. 

ESA-supported activities have a direct impact

Besides the dedicated initiatives mentioned above, some of the projects previously or currently funded by ESA Space Solutions making use of space assets have contributed to address the needs of the healthcare and other users communities to the COVID-19 outbreak.

In Italy, for example, ESA is funding a COVID-19 mission to the Piemonte region to perform health screening using B-LiFE, a transportable bio-lab developed with ESA support. This will help local health authorities to screen key actors (e.g. medical staff, blue forces, firefighters), remotely monitor the status of the pandemic and tailor treatments to individual patients. The B-LiFE lab (Biological Light Fieldable Laboratory for Emergencies) was developed by scientists at the University of Louvain in Belgium and successfully used during the Ebola outbreak in Guinea in 2014 to 2015. 

In Spain, emergency responders are using two Tempus Pro telemedicine devices on loan from ESA to triage and treat patients in Barcelona. Originally developed as telemedicine devices for commercial airlines, the units were then upgraded to be used by medical professionals, for instance to support the work of Air Ambulances in the UK. ESA Business Applications supported all these demonstration projects. The devices are now being used by Catalonia’s emergency medical service to check vital parameters and transmit these to medical colleagues via phone or a secure satellite link for diagnosis. 

Meanwhile, a French ultrasound system is proving its value in allowing imaging for remote diagnosis across a range of disciplines during the pandemic. The Melody system, designed by AdEchoTech with project and financial support from ESA (TESSA - Tele-Echography System for ESA), allows an assistant to hold the device against the patient and then the ultrasound expert, who may be located anywhere, can move the probe around in real-time using a joystick. This minimises the risk of contamination for everyone, particularly those who require isolation, and reduces the need to travel, alleviating the workload of imaging experts. 

Apps prove their value during pandemic

Many apps on mobile devices have shown their positive impact especially for relieving the impact of isolation and supporting individual behaviour during this pandemic.

The Urban Sustainable Development Lab in the UK is currently carrying out a multi-city trial of its Care View app, co-funded by ESA Business Applications. The web app allows vetted public and third sector professionals to access a secure heatmap of their area showing streets (not individual houses) where external signs indicate seclusion or other unmet needs. The team is now offering a 4-months free subscription to a small number of cities for use during the pandemic.

The newest addition to the ESA-funded portfolio comes from Lanterne, a start-up company supported by ESA through the ESA Business Incubation Centre UK, which has devised a free app to help people observe social distancing. The Crowdless app, developed in just 3 days, uses satellite data and artificial intelligence to identify where people are congregating, allowing users to check whether their destination is becoming crowded and alter their plans accordingly.

Speed is of the essence

Lanterne isn’t the only company to move fast in response to the pandemic. From 9 to 12 April 2020, more than 12,000 people from over 100 countries took part in the Global Hack, organised by Garage48, a start-up hackathon series supported by ESA’s Business Incubation Centre in Estonia, which focused on ideas for the current crisis and ongoing resilience. The hackathon was won by SunCrafter, a German start-up that has repurposed solar cells to build a unit to disinfect hands.

ESA Space Solutions

ESA Space Solutions is the umbrella for ESA Business Applications, ESA Business Incubation and ESA Technology Brokers, and is a complete solution for newcomers, start-ups and industries to develop sustainable businesses and applications, and to utilise technologies from space for everyday life. 

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26 May 2020
Last updated at 03 June 2020 - 09:11