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]
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