06 November 2019
The mere mention of the word “drone” can conjure up different emotions – anything from fascination and annoyance to pure fear.
Luckily, this case study tells the story of them being used for good.
Madagascar’s public health professionals, led by Dr. Peter Small, a professor of global health based at New York’s Stony Brook University’s medical school, wanted to help bring medical care to people in rural parts of the African nation.
In order to do this, they partnered with a start-up drone company called Vayu, founded by Daniel Pepper, which aims to bridge the gap between remote villages and healthcare that is so often centrally available, but not so for local inhabitants.
The idea was to conduct an autonomous, long-distance flight of a drone to land and retrieve biomedical samples.
In this case, they were blood samples collected by a health care worker in the field.
The machine flew from the central research facility and landed in the village and said health worker loaded it with real blood samples, before the drone flew back to the facility.
This was a test with real samples and although this trip was just a one-stop round trip, with enough battery life, the drone could fly from location to location.
However, it wasn’t as straightforward as it sounds.
Small and his team needed to obtain permission from three different Madagascan ministries, each with different concerns about unmanned vehicles flying through their airspace.
The team also needed a drone that was capable of carrying large loads over long distances so Vayu selected one about the size of a picnic table, which can land, take off vertically, and fly autonomously as far as 40 miles (64km).
With its helicopter-style propellers attached to static plane-like wings, the wing-and-propeller combination allows Vayu’s drone to land precisely while still flying long distances economically.
Still, that wasn’t the end of the challenges they faced.
As well as wooing the ministries, the strangers had to gain the trust of – and educate - the villagers about drones.
Many of these villagers live as their ancestors have for centuries and would be unnerved by flying vehicles.
Small relied on his colleagues at Stony Brook’s ValBio research station, on the edge of Ranomafana National Park in Madagascar, who regularly dispatch health workers (by foot) to these remote villages.
“It’s easy to say one could or will fly, but we actually did,” Small said.
Today, drones fly to villages that aren’t easily accessible by roads, in order to deliver medicine or pick up biological samples for analysis at a central medical centre.
For remote villages in Madagascar’s Ifanadiana district, where there are no roads, drones can fly to and from a central region in about an hour, compared to a trip lasting upward of 10 hours each way by foot.
Following the empowerment of the villagers of Madagascar, Vayu plans to launch pilot projects in other countries in different continents.