• Drones
  • Drones can be faster than conventional emergency responses

    Drones’ potential’s increasingly linked to supply chains, especially those of the big, online retailers. A report in eHNA described Rwanda’s use in delivering medical supplies. A report by Pew Charitable Trusts identified a new role coming up for drones carrying medical supplies to natural disasters and replacing ambulances that are slow to respond to emergencies in remote areas. This fits Africa’s needs.

    Italo Subbarao, Associate Dean of William Carey University College of Osteopathic Medicine, has built three drone prototypes that can support medical care needed for large-scale disasters. A study of the effects of the towering tornado that struck Hattiesburg, Mississippi in 2013 found that emergency medical responders were slowed down by fallen trees, power lines and debris as they tried to reach the injured. 

    Drones carrying medical supplies, cameras, microphones and interactive goggles can find survivors with an emergency doctor on the scene assessing victims, reading vital signs and administering emergency care. The drone concept doesn’t only fit large-scale emergencies. It can support doctors and other healthcare professionals dealing with serious local emergencies that need specific medical supplies.

    The drones’ potential’s confirmed by a Swedish research letter from a team at Karolinska Institutet, published in the Journal of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).  For 18 drone flights, average time to take off for delivery of a defibrillator was three seconds. They were an average of 17 minutes faster than in reaching the location of Out of Hospital Cardiac Arrests (OHCA). While this service carries a specific, pre-loaded drone, it points to the benefits of drones with bespoke payloads ordered by doctors attending a wider range of medical emergencies. It’s a new opportunity for Africa’s healthcare. 

  • Zipline raises US$25m for Africa expansion

    Drone delivery firm Zipline has raised US$25 million to expand its African operations. Zipline launched in Rwanda last month. It will deliver emergency blood supplies to 21 clinics in Western Rwanda and response to orders by SMS. There’s a fleet of 15 drones, called Zips. An article in ITWebAfrica says the company will soon be making between 50 and150 emergency flights a day.

    Aside from expanding to more African countries and across the world, Zipline also hopes to begin making instant deliveries in the United States in the next six months. It’s collaborating with the White House and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

    "The inability to deliver life saving medicines to the people who need them the most causes millions of preventable deaths each year. Zipline will help solve that problem once and for all," said Zipline CEO Keller Rinaudo. "We're building an instant delivery system for the world, allowing medicines and other products to be delivered on-demand and at low-cost, anywhere. This new funding will help make that vision possible much sooner."

    Visionnaire Ventures co-founder and managing partner Susan Cho said she was looking forward to what the future holds for Zipline and the people that would benefit from its technology. Zipline's already had a remarkable journey. It’s moved from a prototype to lifesaving blood deliveries in less than two years, no small feat. eHNA is excited to see what’s next.

  • Rwanda begins medical drone deliveries

    Today, Rwanda starts a drone service to deliver blood products to hospitals for emergencies. The next step's to deliver pharmaceutical products. The project's been approved by Rwanda's civil aviation authorities. 

    Zipline uses fixed-wing drones that automatically fly to destinations in the country. They release small packages attached to parachutes whereby eliminating the need to land at the delivery points before returning.

    The technology promises to make deliveries much faster than whats possible by road. eHNA looks forward to reporting on the success of the system and to seeing it implemented in other African countries in the future. 

  • Budgies can reduce drone crashes

    As Africa’s skies slowly darken as drones cover the sky delivering drugs to clinics, the lack of illumination may be less worrying than drones falling to the ground from mid-air collisions. This fear may be misplaced, despite being premature.

    A study in PLUS ONE by a team at Australia’s University of Queensland, and partly financed by Boeing Defence Australia, investigated how budgerigars avoid mid-air collisions during head-on encounters. Their individual trajectories in a tunnel were recorded using high speed video cameras. Analysis and modelling of the data suggest two simple strategies to avoid collisions. Each bird:

    1. Veers to its right
    2. Changes its altitude relative to the other bird according to a pre-set preference.

    Both strategies suggest simple rules by which collisions can be avoided in head-on encounters by two agents, whether they’re birds, animals or machines. These findings are potentially applicable to designing guidance algorithms that can drive aircrafts’ automated collision avoidance. They can be used for drones too.

    Well, that’s a relief. No need to worry about being hit by a dropping drone. Only drones obscuring Africa’s sun and creating polar nights, and maybe a challenge identified by Demetri Martin, a comedian, “The bird, the bee, the running child are all the same to the sliding glass door.”

  • Drones v balloons: what’s the outcome?

    Africa’s Internet connectivity needs improving. It seems that Google and Facebook might offer two solutions. Google has Project Loon. Facebook has Project Aquila, part of its Connecting the World initiative. If they work, Africa’s eHealth can benefit.

    Facebook’s goal’s to provide affordable access to basic internet services to everyone in the world. Its research team already has many leading experts in aerospace and communications technology, including experts from NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab and Ames Research Center. A team from Ascenta has now joined. It’s a UK company bought by Facebook, and whose founders created early versions of Zephyr, the world’s longest flying solar-powered unmanned aircraft. It’s a High Altitude Pseudo-Satellite (HAPS) that fills a capability gap between satellites and drones, and flies above commercial air traffic zones. Airbus says “Replacing one conventional UAV with just one Zephyr would save 2,000 tons of fuel each year.”

    Google’s Project Loon aims to overcome the Internet deficit for about two-thirds of the world’s population who don’t have Internet access. It’s a network of balloons traveling on the edge of space, aiming to connect people in rural and remote areas, help fill coverage gaps, and bring people back online after disasters.

    Project Loon’s balloons travel in the stratosphere, about 20 km above the Earth. Up there, winds are stratified, each layer varying in speed and direction, so Project Loon’s algorithms determine where its balloons need to go, then moves each one into the wind layer it needs. By moving with the wind, the balloons can form a large communications network.

    Loon’s pilot started in June 2013. Thirty balloons were launched from New Zealand’s South Island. They beamed Internet to a small group of pilot testers. It’s expanded since then to include more users over a wider area. It’s next goal’s to set up a ring of uninterrupted connectivity in the Southern Hemisphere.

    Either or both of these projects could help to extend Africa’s mHealth and webHealth across more communities. It may not be too long before they’re in place.

  • Is the sky the limit for drones?

    When the Bengali polymath Rabindranath Tagore said “Clouds come floating into my life, no longer to carry rain or usher storm, but to add colour to my sunset,” he couldn’t have envisaged that drones would be too, bringing medical supplies instead of weather and the solar impact on particles in the atmosphere.

    As reported in eHNA, Rwanda has set up a service where doctors and nurses in rural areas can use SMSs to order blood and emergency medicine supplies. Drones will then use GPS coordinates to fly to clinics and deliver them by dropping small packages by parachute. An article in The Economist says that other African countries are looking to similar services.

    Malawi’s evaluating drones too.  A study by the UN Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) looked into the feasibility of using Matternet drones to transport HIV test samples of new born babies. There were two main findings. One was that all 93 flights in the two-week trial period in March were successful. Secondly, the cost of the drones may be more than the cost of using motorbikes. Judith Sherman, UNICEF’s HIV/AIDS chief in Malawi, concludes that “The technology is still immature.”

    The next step’s to find a better way to transport lab samples. There may be locations where drones offer the best option, such as islands in Lake Malawi. As technology matures and costs drop, the role of drones seems likely to expand. Rwanda’s

  • Rwanda's healthcare drones set for takeoff

    Starting in June, doctors and nurses in rural areas of Rwanda will be able to order blood and emergency medicine via text messages. Drones, which are part of a new plan designed to save lives, will fly to clinics using GPS coordinates to deliver the ordered goods by dropping the small packages by parachute, says an article in Al Jezeera

    Zipline, the company behind the project, says the aircraft will be capable of making up to 150 deliveries to 21 facilities across the country. Keller Rinaudo, the CEO of Zipline believes Rwanda is the perfect testing ground for this new technology and will support adoption of drones in healthcare in the United States. By operating in a country where the technology serves a real need and will be able to save lives, while accumulating tens of thousands of safe flight hours, the company hopes to secure the case for drones back in the US.

    Despite major progress in the last few years, Rwanda remains one of the world's poorest countries and has a long way to go to provide quality health care. Building and running hospitals is expensive, so the government has incentive to be the first in the world to establish a commercial drone-delivery network.

  • Malawi's HIV programme boosted by drones

    Drones are quickly becoming part of the healthcare landscape and their potential hasn’t been overlooked by African countries. Rwanda’s drone policies are already on the drawing board because Unmanned Aerial Vehicle’s (UAVs) will soon become a common feature in their skies, distributing medical equipment to the most remote areas, saving time and lives.

    Rwanda isn’t the only African country embracing drones for their medical potential. Malawi has quickly followed suit. The first successful test-flight of a drone was an unhindered 10 km journey from a community health centre to the Kamuzu central hospital laboratory in the capital Lilongwe. Local community members were excited as the drone rose into the sky after its launch by the United Nations Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF) and government of Malawi at the area 25 health centre, says an article in ALL Africa.

    The first of its kind in southern Africa, the US manufactured machine was on trial till March 18 to determine if it could replace other modes of transporting dried blood samples from rural clinics to the main laboratories for early HIV screening in children. UNICEF hopes this innovation will help solve logistical problems in Malawi's rural areas due to the bad state of roads and high costs of diesel fuel.

    Currently, motorcycles and ambulances transport blood samples between clinics and take up to 11 days to reach the respective testing centers and two months for the results to come back. The longer the delay between the test and results, the higher the default rate of the patients. G government figures show 10, 000 children died of Aids-related illnesses in Malawi in 2014. HIV screening in children with HIV positive mothers is more complicated than screening for adults. It needs more sophisticated equipment. It’s hard to access for most remote communities. 

    The drones are operated through a mobile phone app. The drones can transport roughly 1 kg of blood samples from rural clinics to Malawi’s main laboratories. UNICEF and the Malawi government expect the drones to replace motorbikes and reduce waiting times for results, cutting time and costs in accessing test results and treating children with HIV positive diagnoses.

    Transport cost for drones are cheaper than motorbikes because they only need electricity to recharge the battery. Maintenance’s cheaper too. Done’s prices could be a hindrance. Each drone costs MK5 million, approximately US$7,000.

    However, health authorities believe drones’ advantages outweigh their costs. The minister of health, Peter Kumpalume, said "it is specialist testing that we do for youngsters. If you delay giving them treatment most of them won't live beyond two years age. So the earlier the detection and the earlier the intervention, the longer they live and become productive citizens of the country."

    Kumpalume also said the new innovation was in line with the Malawi government's 90-90-90 agenda."Government intends to achieve the 90-90-90 target where 90% of Malawians know their HIV status, to have 90% of all those diagnosed with HIV receive sustained anti-retroviral treatment, and 90% of people on ART to have viral suppression” 

    Malawi’s national HIV prevalence rate is 10%, one of the highest in the world. An estimated one million Malawians were living with HIV in 2013 and 48,000 died from HIV-related illnesses in the same year. It’s clear that improving the service is vital.

    While the government has made impressive progress in their fight against HIV, with 90% of pregnant women now knowing their HIV status, there’s a gap with testing and treating babies and children. The drone tests will measure the performance with differing winds speeds, humidity and distance. If the results are positive, the experiment will be expanded.

  • Drones will soon be coming to Rwanda

    Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), or drones, were first used by the US military to rain destruction on their enemies. But as time went by, the new technology offered more innovative uses. Some have been equipped with pesticide-filled tanks to spray large swathes of farmland, aerial photography’s made easier, and others have been fitted with sophisticated cameras that can detect gas and oil pipe leaks buried under ground, says an article in All Africa.

    Amazon’s toying with the idea of using drones to deliver parcels to its clients to beating traffic jams, reinventing mail delivery as we know it.

    Even so, drones have a bad press as being hard to handle and could be dangerous to people, aircraft and the environment if they were to crash and lose control. Since it is a new field with seemingly endless possibilities as well as dangers, many countries are yet to come up with regulatory instruments. 

    Rwanda has been at the forefront to embracing ICT and technologies across all sectors. It seems drone use will be no different. Rwanda’s drone policies are already on the drawing board because UAVs will soon become a common feature in their skies.

    The continent's first droneport will soon take shape in Rwanda. What will set aside Muhanga Droneport from the rest is that it will be for purely humanitarian purposes. The first area of operation will be distributing medical equipment to the most remote areas, saving time and lives. It’ll be another audacious first from Rwanda, knowing how and when to embrace technology to improve its people’s health and welfare.

  • Are drones set for health in Africa?

    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?