Going back over five thousand years, pigeons used to transport messages and light loads across distances with remarkable success. They were extensively used to carry post and in war exploits to carry messages. Their natural ability to return home even after long flights made them ideal couriers. This creative use of the bird’s abilities to meet people’s transportation and communication needs was clever and innovative for its time.
Fast forward to the 21st century and another small bird holds potential to disrupt the transportation and courier industry as we know it today. While both birds share some characteristics such as flying on their own and returning home by themselves after long hours of flight, the new bird is man-made and comes in various shapes and sizes. The Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), or drone, comes in different designs touted for commercial use. They range from UAVs similar to very small aircrafts with horizontal take-off and landing, designs that have a combination of wings and rotors, unmanned small helicopters and the popular multi-copter design with multiple rotors. Multi-copters are low cost and easy to build with firmware needed for their operation, open-sourced and freely available online thanks to enthusiasts of the technology. A 2014 report by DHL Trend Research echoes the following UAV sentiments.“Some doubt that our skies will ever be filled with pilot-less aerial devices. Others say that this future will be ours very soon. In different ways, both opinions are close to the truth.”
An article by The Telegraph, a UK newspaper, highlights Rwanda’s plans to build the world’s first three drone ports by 2020 to overcome transportation infrastructure challenges in the hilly country’s healthcare system.
UAVs have made headlines for all the wrong reasons. They’ve been used to carry out deadly military strikes leaving large numbers of civilian casualties, used to spy on people and public surveillance which has generated distrust and privacy concerns about their use, and have been flown irresponsibly and dangerously close to civil aviation traffic.
They have recently been used for less sinister reasons. UAVs have been used by online retail giant, Amazon, to deliver items to customers, to shoot block buster movies in Hollywood, to deliver pizza in Russia and USA, to deliver cakes in China, and to prevent poaching of rhinos and elephants in South Africa. Many of these current uses have one thing in common; they’re part of proof of concept studies for commercial application of UAV technology.
What Can Drones do for Healthcare in Africa?
Just as mobile phones have allowed Africa to leap frog communication infrastructure challenges, drones can help Africa bypass transportation infrastructure challenges and improve health service delivery for the rapidly growing African population.
UAVs have been shown to be successful in transportation of blood samples and other specimens to laboratories for testing. This is especially relevant for African healthcare systems where rural health facilities lack the capacity, equipment or reagents to perform many required patient laboratory tests. Most rural healthcare in Africa is based on clinical diagnoses due in part to these challenges. Providing the capability for rural health centres to access critical laboratory testing through UAVs can improve patient care outcomes, reduce referrals and treatment costs. The same UAVs can also be used to transport urgent blood for patients from blood banks or hospitals. The results from testing the lab samples can also be transported back to the requesting health centres using the same UAVs or transmitted electronically. Electronically will be quicker if connectivity and eHealth are in palce.
UAVs can also be used to deliver vaccines and critical medicines to remote health centres. A UAV making a number of trips from a medicines warehouse to a remote health centre might be faster and cost less than a vehicle transporting the same drugs. The drugs can also be ordered more frequently by the health centre and delivered through the UAV which would minimise drug expiries in the healthcare system.
UAVs can deliver health supplies to quarantined areas during disease outbreaks and quickly map affected geographic areas, minimising associated risks to health workers. For instance during outbreaks of highly contagious diseases. UAVs can deliver supplies close to patients’ bed-sides. They can be fitted with equipment to draw lab samples from quarantined patients and allow a tele-consultation using high resolution cameras and microphones between patients and clinicians.
Currently, most of these uses will remain hypothetical until UAV concerns are addressed. These include UAV safety, country laws and regulations, technology maturity, payload capacity, privacy infringement, public trust, UAV airspace control, weather robustness of UAVs and anti-hacker capabilities. Until then, Africa’s skies will remain clear, but for how long?