• Drones
  • 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?

  • Will Africa's healthcare drones damage wildlife?

    Jungle Book is Rudyard Kipling’s tale of a set of relationships between Mowgli, a young, lost Indian boy, and numerous types of wildlife. Disney’s 1967 film version include The Bare Necessities, a song by Baloo the bear and Mowgli, written by Terry Gilkyson. Baloo’s excessively laid back and unstressed. He hadn’t seen a drone.

    Researchers from Minnesota University have found that when bears are confronted with a short drone flight, they seem unfazed, like Baloo, but they have heart rate spikes associated with stress. In 18 UAV flights near four different bears, behaviour changes occurred twice, but the bears consistently showed strong physiological responses; they all had elevated heart rates, then recovered quickly. The biggest increase was 400%, from 41 beats per minute to 162.

    In Africa, eHNA’s posted that drones may be used to transport blood samples, and may have many more uses for healthcare. Aviation codes, regulations and laws can limit the use of drones. Will the effect on wildlife be a constraint too? With the benefit of drones probably greater in remote and rural areas, where wildlife may congregate, will the environmental case limit their use?

    These possibilities raise another question. Will people find drones stressful? It’ll be unhelpful if drones solve one health problem by contributing to another. The researchers say they need more information to judge the overall impact. Their extra questions include: will all animals be stressed by drones, or will some be immune? At what distance does the drone create stress? The next stage’s to work with captive bears to see they can become used to drones.

    Part of Baloo’s advice was “Forget about your worries and your strife.” It might be a bit challenging if somebody’s sending numerous drones a day near you.

  • Drones may soon be transporting blood samples in Africa

    The use of drones in healthcare has long been debated. There is now a new proof-of-concept study at Johns Hopkins which shows that drones could revolutionise healthcare in Africa.  An article in African Healtcare IT News says researchers from Johns Hopkins have shown that results of common and routine blood tests are not affected by up to 40 minutes of travel on small-sized drones. This is promising news for the millions of people cared for in rural areas as drones can give health workers quick access to lab tests needed for diagnoses and treatments. It also raises the issue of drone security flying in places where they can collide and disrupt other transport.

    “Biological samples can be very sensitive and fragile,” says Timothy Kien Amukele, MD PhD, a pathologist at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, and director of a laboratory collaboration between Johns Hopkins and Uganda’s Makerere University. The sudden acceleration that marks the launch and the jostling when the drone lands were a concern for samples’ integrity. “Such movements could have destroyed blood cells or prompted blood to coagulate and I thought all kinds of blood tests might be affected, but our study shows they weren’t,” he says.

    The study is one of the first rigorous examinations of the impact of drone transport on biological samples. The team collected six blood samples from 56 healthy adult volunteers at Johns Hopkins Hospital. The samples were then driven to a flight site an hour’s drive from the hospital. There, half of the samples were packaged for flight, with careful consideration to protect them for the in-flight environment and prevent leakage. These samples were then loaded into a hand-launched fixed-wing drone and flown around for periods of six to 38 minutes. The other half of the samples were driven back from the drone flight field to The Johns Hopkins Hospital Core Laboratory, where they underwent the 33 most common laboratory tests that together account for around 80% of all tests done.

    Comparing lab results of the flown versus non-flown blood, Amukele says “the flight really had no impact.” He says that the ideal way to test the concept would be to fly the blood around immediately after drawing it, but explains that neither the FAA nor Johns Hopkins would like drones flying around the hospital.

    Given the successful proof-of-concept results, Amukele says the likely next step is a pilot study in a location in Africa where health care clinics are sometimes 60 or more miles away from labs.

    A drone has the ability to fly a 100 km in just 40 minutes, dramatically cutting down the time it usually takes to transport blood samples. Drones are also less expensive than motorcycles, are not subject to traffic delays, and the technology already exists for the drone to be programmed to ‘home’ to certain GPS coordinates. Drones have been tested as carriers of medicines to clinics in remote areas, but whether and how drones will be used in flights over populated areas will depend on countries laws and regulations.

  • UAVs have finally done it

    It’s taken eight years for a winner. This year’s Australian UAV Outback Challenge: find Outback Joe, has finally succeeded.

    A post on The Conversation describes the international robotics competition. It says that the Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) have to find Outback Joe, a lost manikin, and deliver a bottle of water near to him, but not on him. While it sounds fun, it has a very serious side. The drones usually fly for up to an hour and cover 50 to 100 kilometres of ground for the search.

    Air searchers are regular features of rescues, but have limitations. Drones can provide a solution, but may not be sophisticated enough yet, hence the eight-year wait to win the A$50,000 prize. The winning team flew in a pattern around Outback Joe’s location to estimate the wind direction. The on-board computer then calculated the best flight path over Joe, and landed a water bottle just 2.6 meters from him: brilliant.

    The results offer important knowledge and experience for UAV development. The open source software movement is keen on the UAV Challenge. This year, three entrants comprised the most used, low-cost developers. Software for two of them from Dronecode has been downloaded more than 170,000 times.

    A post on Gigaom says the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology has a drone that can pinpoint a mobile phone by picking up its Wi-Fi signal. It’ll be within 30 feet of the user by picking up the signal in real-time from several spots to triangulate their position. The Institute sees the main value for teams responding to avalanches and earthquakes. The drone tracks the signal strength to assess the depth of the phone underground and produces a 3D picture of the location.

    Drones seem to be increasingly sophisticated and dependable. Just because they are doesn’t mean that Joe can go wandering off even further afield. Justina Chen said “Getting lost is just another way of saying going exploring.” Not if you’re dying of thirst it’s not.

  • Will an ambulance drone be part of emergency responses soon?

    Amazon’s drone delivery service is well known as an idea moving towards implementation. Now, Alec Momont, a graduate student of Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands has developed a prototype of an ambulance drone. Euronews has a report saying that the drone’s:

    Ten times faster than an ambulance in reaching an emergency scene Equipped with a defibrillator Guided by the mobile phones of the people assisting patients at the scene Include a two-way video channel that operators can use to assess situations and provide advice to responders.

    Alec Momont says that “Drones are always limited in their battery life, but since we are flying so fast and come to the location at that high speed and it lands, we actually only use five percent of the battery.” The next stage is to move from tests to commercial production, which could be within five years.

    Equivalent flight tests are planned in Cambridge UK for Prime Air, Amazon’s parcel delivery service. The Cambridge News has a report suggesting that the concept is “barking mad,” isn’t safe, and contravenes air traffic control regulations. These limit flying small, unmanned aircraft beyond the normal unaided line of sight of the operator and if the devices have a camera, they mustn’t be flown within 150m of a congested area and must be least 50m away from people, vehicles, buildings or structure. There have been serious injuries to bystanders, and tragic fatalities, even with these regulations.

    Unsurprisingly, Amazon has a different view. It’s serious about its plan and is expanding its research and development team in Cambridge to take it further. It’s planning to expand its development centres in Cambridge, UK and Seattle, USA. Amazon also has several other Prime Air development centres.

    In most countries, permission is needed to fly small drones commercially or to fly drones with cameras near people or properties. Amazon could trial them without permission on open land, but Cambridge News understands that the current UK rules prevent commercial operators using their drones for deliveries because operators need to remain in a clear line of sight.

    It seems that Alec Momont and Amazon have to test the technology of their drones and contribute to changing the regulations if they want their drones to be commercial viability. The latter may take longer. These initiatives may slow the use of drones to deliver drugs and medical supplies in African countries.

  • Does conservation have ideas for healthcare?

    Ol Pejeta Conservancy, a large reserve in Kenya, and Airware, a San Francisco-based company building an Aerial Information Platform (AIP) for commercial drones, started testing the Aerial Range in Kenya. Drones, with their proper name of Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), can deal with numerous challenges. The Ol Pejeta project is to tackle the effects of poaching on depleted populations of endangered species, such as rhinoceros and elephants.

    Airware has modified its Aerial Ranger to help to observe, track and protect wildlife during both day and night. Footage of an incident recorded from the drone may be used to identify poachers and used as evidence in court.

    Aerial Ranger will also provide information for Ol Pejeta’s Ecological Monitoring Department. The data can provide information for O Pejeta’s annual wildlife census across its vast land area, replacing the reliance on 13 hours of light aircraft time at an estimated cost of up to US$3,000. Airware’s data may be more accurate and provide monthly data.

    An example of the use of Drone’s is reported by the BBC. In Wisconsin, an 82-year old man with Alzheimer’s was missing for about three days. The Drone located him after about 20 minutes.

    The trial was a success, but more work’s needed. Progress so far might show that drones could be a cheap and effective way to manage and sustain a population census in Africa’s remote areas. During severe, adverse weather and health threats, it could provide invaluable data about remote communities’ locations and changes, and help with resources allocated for their healthcare interventions.

  • So you asked for free WiFi, now Facebook is sending Drones

    Google grabbed headlines June 2013 with their promise of ubiquitous WiFi from high altitude balloons. Now Facebook has a proposal to try to go one better and provide free WiFi everywhere, with a solution that scores well on at least two metrics that get eHNA excited: connectivity potential for Africa and connectivity for eHealth. It’s also innovative, out-of-the-box and fun. Tom Walker of the UK’s Independent had an article about it.

    Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, made the announcement in March 2014. The strategy employs drones and low-earth-orbit satellites. Two thirds of the earth is targeted, to connect billions of people currently without Internet. It’s called the Connectivity Lab and Facebook’s apparently already hired several aerospace and communications experts from NASA and has purchased British aerospace company Ascenta, creators of Zephyr, a solar-powered drone the can run for 80-odd hours. Facebook is also rumoured to have been in talks to buy the Texas firm Titan Aerospace for as much as $60m; Titan is developing drones capable of flying non-stop on solar power for up to five years.

    The plan is an initiative of Internet.org, which wants to bring Internet access to those parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America that remain offline. It was launched 2013 by a group of technology companies. “Our goal with Internet.org is to make affordable access to basic Internet services available to every person in the world,” Mr Zuckerberg wrote in a post.

    It’s not Facebook’s first foray into this territory. In the past year they’ve already worked with partners in Paraguay and the Philippines to bring mobile Internet to three million new users.

    If, as Bill Gates suggested, “the Internet is the town square of the global village of tomorrow,” users across Africa have much to gain from joining this village, and much to contribute too. Health strengthening opportunities are enormous. A question is how we will prepare ourselves to realise benefits as the Internet connectivity expands.

  • Drone delivery in Africa: place your order, we'll find you

    Last year drones were used to airdrop cold beer to thirsty revelers at South African music festival Oppikopie. Drones tracked each customer’s position using GPS coordinates from the mobile phone used to place the order.

    Most eHNA readers would agree that African countries need novel solutions to deal with unique challenges. But drones?

    Monty Munfred of Wired magazine believes so, arguing the case in his February piece Forget Amazon, drone delivery will take off in Africa. He points out that while much of Africa does not have good road or postal services, communities are connecting at a staggering pace, with Telecom Association (TA) reporting in December 2013 that penetration is now above 80%. Munfred suggests “the same is likely to go for transportation”.

    Forward thinking organisations are not sitting back. Amazon is testing the potential of drones in West Africa to deliver 2.5kg packages to customers within a 10-mile radius, within half an hour.

    The Flying Donkey Challenge starts in Africa this year. The annual event launches in November in Kenya. According to organizers “world-leading roboticists, engineers, regulators, entrepreneurs, logisticians, and designers will win substantial grants by advancing the safety, durability, legality, profitability and friendliness of cargo robots”. Challengers will race to deliver and collect 20kg payloads around Mount Kenya over 24 hours.

    So what does this mean for healthcare in Africa? With drug supply a perennial challenge for many African countries due to inadequate road networks to many rural clinics, could drone deliveries be part of the answer?

    As with many eHealth developments, the drone technology is unlikely to be the limitation, but rather understanding markets expectations, delivering value and developing a sound business model. eHNA will be watching this curious story unfold, as should health suppliers wrestling with how to deliver much needed medical supplies to areas cut off from conventional supply routes.