UAVs medical planesTechnology developed for war has been turned to the saving of lives. Engineers have converted uncrewed military aircraft into robotic carrier pigeons that could ferry medical samples from remote regions to labs for testing, or deliver snake antivenom to stricken victims.
Clinics in remote areas of South Africa can only be reached on unpaved roads that are impassable in rain. Even in good weather, the trip to the nearest lab is a long one for the couriers, taxis, or ambulances transporting samples, producing long delays in diagnosing and treating diseases like tuberculosis.
"The implications of these delays are huge for the individual and for the community," says project leader Barry Mendelow of the South African National Health Laboratory Service. "The patient is waiting for treatment, and in the meantime they could be passing on a very contagious disease."
Inspired by carrier pigeons, the UAVs (uncrewed aerial vehicles) are designed to be launched from clinics and pilot themselves along a pre-programmed route to the nearest lab, using GPS and microelectronic gyroscopes to guide them.
They drop their cargo at a predetermined spot, or on directions from the ground, and return along their flight path. The UAV can land automatically, or under remote control by staff.
The pilot project has successfully test-flown two different UAVs originally designed for military surveillance. Both could launch, fly and drop dummy samples in wind speeds of up to 45 kilometres per hour.
The larger of the two UAVs has been dubbed "e-Juba", from the Zulu word for pigeon. It was developed with military firm Denel Dynamics, and can carry an 500-gram payload.
That's enough to carry many blood or sputum samples, or two units of blood for transfusion.
The team worked with South African entrepreneur Jaco Davel to modify a smaller, cheaper UAV, which can be launched by hand and land almost anywhere. Its small size poses little danger to people on landing or takeoff.
The plane can carry over 20 small, dry and light sputum samples stored on blotting paper that are used by newer DNA-based tests. These dry samples are also sterilised, so there is no risk of live bacteria or viruses escaping in the event of a crash landing.
Lab results are already sent to remote clinics with unreliable wired telephone connections by cellphone text message, so patients need not wait for a UAV to return. The aircraft should allow patients to get results within a day of providing a sample, says Mendelow.