Thursday, 11 October 2012
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an interview with MIT’s UAV vaccine delivery team Earlier this year, Dr. George Barbastathis and five graduate students—Nikhil Vadhavkar, Adam Pan, Vyas Ramanan, Andrew Warren, and Justin Lee—from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) were awarded $100,000 by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation through its Grand Challenges Explorations initiative. The team hopes to demonstrate that vaccines can be transported to remote health centers using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Op.ti.mize spoke to the team about their proposal and the challenges they face. What gave you the idea for your proposal? NV: We were taking a class in global health innovation and had the good fortune to hear some really far-out ideas. After the class, we discussed how interesting it would be to do something like that. Our idea was sparked by one of those “wouldn’t it be cool if…?” discussions, and so we started refining this idea of using UAVs to transport vaccines to remote villages. UAV technology is advancing very quickly right now, and decreasing in price all the time. For example, communities such as DIY Drones have been successful in designing and building low-cost UAVs using open-source software and off-the-shelf parts. We wanted to tie this back to global health and really take advantage of the UAV revolution. Have UAVs been used in health care contexts before? AP: There have been a few health care projects that have made use of UAV technology. One of them was basically the reverse of our project: health care workers in the field, without access to complex testing equipment, using UAVs to fly blood samples back to a central health clinic where the tests could be performed. There have been other examples where UAVs have been used in emergency situations such as search and rescue, and by law enforcement, but we don’t have any knowledge of UAVs being used to transport vaccines. How will your plan work? AW: When a health care worker at a remote location needs more vaccines, they send an SMS text message to the UAV with details of what they require and when they need it. The system then forwards this information to the relevant health care worker at the central clinic, who loads the UAV with the requested vaccine stock. After loading and refueling the UAV, the central clinic health care worker sends a launch command SMS to the UAV. The UAV then takes off, flies fully autonomously to the preloaded GPS coordinates associated with the remote health care worker’s phone number, drops off the vaccines, and then returns to the central clinic. What are the advantages of using UAVs to distribute vaccines? VR: Last-mile distribution of vaccines is a critical issue in much of the developing world. In mountainous areas, in places with rainy seasons that make rivers impassable and wash out roads, delivering vaccines to remote health centers by a car or truck is a real challenge. Delivering vaccines by air is a simple way to alleviate these geographical problems. AW: Also, when you send a vehicle on a long and difficult journey, you need to make a pretty large shipment to justify the high transport costs. When you send a UAV, you can deliver the exact amount of vaccine that the health care worker needs, so there is much less chance of overstocking or associated vaccine wastage. This is really useful if you are vaccinating only a small number of children each week, in a location where you cannot store vaccines for long periods. Having the ability to regularly transport small amounts of vaccines—whenever they are needed—is a big advantage. What are the limitations? NV: One of the biggest limitations is distance. We envisage building a simple UAV that is small and robust, that can deliver payloads of up to a kilogram about 40 kilometers. But if you want to fly 150 kilometers and make multiple or larger deliveries, you need to build a bigger, more expensive UAV and a more complicated system. AW: We see our UAV as being used in particular scenarios, such as when the road to a remote health center in the mountains is washed out in the rainy season, and road delivery becomes impossible. So we don’t see the UAV completely replacing other distribution methods in the vaccine supply chain, but we do see it as having very useful applications in specific contexts. In places such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where villages are scattered and separated by very large distances, traditional forms of transportation may be better. How will you customize your solution to work in the developing world? AP: One of the things we are working on is enabling health care workers to control the UAV using SMS messages. We’re hoping that this will help to make the system as straightforward to use as possible, and that all health care workers will need to do is state in the text message the amount of vaccines they require and when they need them to be delivered. Aside from loading up the UAV at the central health clinic, very little technical expertise will be required to operate the UAVs. How will you test your proposal? VR: A lot of our initial testing is being done on airstrips here in the USA. Once we have a working system, we’re going to field-test the UAV in a more realistic scenario so we can see how it performs and how successfully health care workers can be trained to work with it. We will also use this opportunity to collect data regarding cultural and governmental challenges to be considered when implementing a full-scale version of our solution. One challenge might be that countries are resistant to using UAVs because they associate them so strongly with their military uses. I think a lot of what we are going to do is build trust in this sort of system; having a working proof-of-concept will go a long way towards this. The team aims to complete their project by October 2013. For more information, please email Dr. George Barbastathis ([email protected]). We encourage your questions or comments. Please click reply at the bottom of the page.
8 years ago

FYI - Coincidentally New York Times pulished an article today on blood andpharmaceuticalstransportation by UAV to remote locations.


HALF MOON BAY, Calif. — From a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, a loud pop signals the catapult launch of a small fixed-wingdronethat is designed to carry medical supplies to remote locations almost 40 miles away.

The drones are the brainchild of a small group of engineers at a Silicon Valley start-up calledZipline, which plans to begin operating a service with them for the government of Rwanda in July. The fleet of robot planes will initially cover more than half the tiny African nation, creating a highly automated network to shuttle blood andpharmaceuticalsto remote locations in hours rather than weeks or months.

Rwanda, one of the world’s poorest nations, was ranked 170th by gross domestic product in 2014 by the International Monetary Fund. And so it is striking that the country will be the first, company executives said, to establish a commercial drone delivery network — putting it ahead of places like the United States, where there have been heavily ballyhooedfuturistic drone delivery systemspromising urban and suburban package delivery fromtech giantssuch as Amazonand Google.

“The concept of drone ports is something that a very small decision-making unit in the country decided they were going to do,” said Michael Fairbanks, a member of the Rwandan president Paul Kagame’s presidential advisory council. “It took a very short time. It’s something that America could learn from.”

That Rwanda is set to become the first country with a drone delivery network illustrates the often uneven nature of the adoption of new technology. In the United States, drones have run into a wall of regulation andconflicting rules. But in Rwanda, the country’s master development plan has placed a priority on the use of the machines, first for medicine and then more broadly for economic development.

“Rwanda has a vision to become a technology hub for East Africa and ultimately the whole continent of Africa,” said William Hetzler, a founder of Zipline, which is based in this seaside town. “Projects like ours fit very well with that strategy.”

The new drone system will initially be capable of making 50 to 150 daily deliveries of blood and emergency medicine to Rwanda’s 21 transfusing facilities, mostly in hospitals and clinics in the western half of the nation.

The drone system is based on a fleet of 15 small aircraft, each with twin electric motors, a 3.5-pound payload and an almost eight-foot wingspan. The system’s speed makes it possible to maintain a “cold chain” — essentially a temperature-controlled supply chain needed to provide blood and vaccines — which is often not practical to establish in developing countries.

The Zipline drones will use GPS receivers to navigate and communicate via the Rwandan cellular network. They will be able to fly in rough weather conditions, enduring winds up to 30 miles per hour.

When they reach the hospitals, they will not land but will drop small packages from very low altitudes. The supplies will fall to earth suspended by simple paper parachutes. The planes will then return to a home base, where they will be prepared for a new mission by swapping in a new battery and snapping in a new flight plan stored in a SIM card.

“This is the new face of the aerospace industry,” said Jay Gundlach, president of FlightHouse Engineering, an Oregon-based aviation consulting firm. “Established unmanned aircraft companies should learn from Zipline’s agile and innovative culture.”

Like Zipline, others are trying to solve the problem of the autonomous distribution of medical supplies. Many other systems being developed, however, are based on less-efficient multicopter or quadcopter designs that have shorter range and less ability to fly in all-weather situations.

In the United States,a firm named Flirteyhas delivered medical supplies using multirotor helicopters as an experiment in Virginia. Another Silicon Valley start-up, Matternet, is experimenting with the government of Malawi and with Unicef to deliver infantH.I.V.tests by quadcopter. Google X, the advanced research arm of Alphabet, is now developing a vertical-takeoff-and-landing system that will hover and deliver packages by the use of winches.

Zipline began in 2014 when two of its founders, Keller Rinaudo and Mr. Hetzler, visited a young public health worker in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. The worker had created a text-messaging system that enabled hospital workers to urgently request medical supplies in life-or-death situations.

But Mr. Rinaudo said he realized that what he was looking at was a long list of death sentences. Today in many places worldwide, attempts are made to deliver medical supplies by motorcycle or pickup truck over roads that are frequently impassable.

The public health worker “showed me the database that had entries every time someone texted, and it was thousands of names long,” Mr. Rinaudo said. “It was mostly infants, and there was no response. The supply chain had no way of taking them into account.”

Mr. Rinaudo and Mr. Hetzler set about to find an airborne alternative to automate a supply chain. They met Keenan Wyrobek, a Stanford-trained roboticist who was instrumental in the design of the PR1 robot, a pioneering general purpose mobile robot with arms, and later the more advanced PR2 robot developed by Willow Garage.

The three technologists assembled an engineering team with aerospace industry experience, attracting talent from Space X, Aurora Flight Sciences, Boeing and Lockheed Martin, as well as Stanford and Google. The start-up has raised $18 million from investors including Sequoia Capital, GV (formerly Google Ventures), SV Angel, Subtraction Capital, Stanford University and individuals including Jerry Yang, a founder of Yahoo, and Paul Allen, a founder of Microsoft.

Mr. Hetzler said that by placing engineers who have consumer electronics expertise in close collaboration with roboticists and aerospace engineers, it had been possible to rapidly build a highly automated system that would be operated by a staff of five to eight.

In February, Zipline signed a contract with the Rwandan government to begin operating the drone service this summer. A small team will be based in a city near the Rwandan capital of Kigali to oversee the service.

“I always think of Peter Thiel, the venture capitalist, who said, ‘They promised us flying cars and all we got was 140 characters,’” said Paul Willard, a former Boeing aerodynamics engineer who is now an investor in Zipline, referring to the social media service Twitter. “This feels a little bit more like flying cars.”

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