May 8, 2015 / 2:53 PM / 5 years ago

Robots to the rescue: drones can help tackle TB, says health charity

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Crocodile-infested rivers, choppy seas and a lack of proper roads make it difficult for aid workers in remote areas of Papua New Guinea to transport medical supplies, but aid workers have come up with a new solution: drones.

Unmanned drones are often used in humanitarian efforts for mapping, but using them to get medicines and samples to hard-to-reach areas is new, said Isaac Chikwanha and Eric Pujo of Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF).

Aid groups trying to tackle tuberculosis in a region where the disease is more prevalent than almost anywhere else in the world used the “quadcopters” last year to transport sputum samples from remote clinics to testing centers.

MSF were looking for a simple, safe and all-weather way of moving samples around Papua New Guinea’s Gulf region - a place Pujo called the “biggest swamp in the world”.

Most outlying health centers in Papua New Guinea lack road access, so travel is typically by boat or on foot. Samples must get to a testing center within hours. MSF joined with Matternet, a U.S. technology company, to develop the devices.

The drones are operated by smartphones, with the operator plugging in the coordinates of the destination, and the drone then flying itself. Phone signal in the region is “almost everywhere, but roads aren’t,” Chikwanha said at conference on technology and medicine in London on Thursday.

The light devices take off and land vertically, unlike heavier drones which can carry a greater load but require a runway, Chikwanha said, adding “initially, when the idea came up, people in our operations department thought we were crazy”.

Limitations include battery life, legal hurdles and ethical concerns, although Chikwanha said the local population had embraced the technology, with one drone downed in the jungle being returned to researchers by the local community.

The drones had not been tested in extreme weather but worked well in fairly heavy rain, he said.

Drones are unlikely to be rolled out in conflict zones, where they could be associated with military activity and shot down, he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Reporting By Joseph D'Urso; Editing by Ros Russell

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