Drones, Smartphones Eyed for Medical Aid to Remote Regions

Nancy A. Melville

October 02, 2013

In This Article

A minimally trained healthcare worker in a remote village in sub-Saharan Africa, where recent floods have made roads in and out indefinitely impassable, uses a high-tech respiratory sensor to discover an otherwise undetectable low respiratory rate in a child suffering from malaria.

The worker then inputs the information into a smartphone application that guides her through easy-to-follow, step-by-step treatment guidelines from the World Health Organization (WHO).

The smartphone then notifies her of a shipment that is incoming, and she steps outside as a small unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) descends from the sky, delivering a payload of vaccines and medication in a temperature-controlled container. She unloads the much-needed supplies and fills the container back up with blood samples, and the small aircraft takes flight again, returning to a hub with better facilities and diagnostics.

If projects in the works in research labs in the United States and Europe come to fruition, the scenario will become a reality in the not-too-distant future, with state-of-the-art technology allowing for crucial healthcare services at tremendous savings in some regions that need it the most.

The development of UAVs, in particular, commonly referred to as drones, has gained interest as a far more affordable alternative to aircraft for the delivery of everything from medicine to vaccines.

Researchers taking on the challenge include scientists in the lab of George Barbastathis, PhD, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston.

Working with a $100,000 grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the team is developing a UAV system specifically for the delivery of vaccines to health centers in remote regions.

"Vaccines are of high value and low weight, so they lend themselves for shipment with this type of technology, especially if you are delivering to a small community and need to deliver vaccines for about 100 children at a time," said Andrew Warren, a graduate student researcher on the project.

The team's UAV model would be powered with a small battery, similar to those used in cell phones or laptops. Efforts are underway to collaborate with health officials in Mozambique and several other locations around Africa, and a proof-of-concept deployment is expected in a developing nation by April 2014.


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