University collects medical samples via drones in Madagascar
August 9, 2016
by Frank Eltman
A suburban New York university is using drone technology to improve the health care of people in remote parts of Madagascar.
Stony Brook University, which has been working in the island nation off the coast of Africa for nearly three decades, has teamed with a Michigan startup company called Vayu Inc. to transport medical samples by drone for laboratory analysis.
The team made its first successful run of the drone technology in late July.
Diagnosis of ailments, like tapeworm disease, which causes life-threatening seizures and contributes to malnutrition in villages on the island, can now be completed within a few hours, said Dr. Peter Small, founding director of Stony Brook's Global Health Institute.
The drones are about the size of a large picnic table and have two sets of wings. They take off and land like helicopters and have a flight range of about 40 miles. Blood and other medical samples can be secured in small compartments in the body of the aircraft.
Drones are being used in other parts of the developing world to deliver medications and other supplies to remote areas, but Stony Brook officials say theirs is one of the first efforts involving a small unmanned aircraft that actually lands in remote villages and returns quickly to a laboratory.
To reach these villages, medical workers have had to travel on foot—there are no roads—a trip that takes five to nine hours each way. By drone, they can dispatch the medical samples back to Stony Brook's Centre ValBio research station and get lab results within an hour or two, said Patricia Wright, the station's executive director.
"Blood samples have a shelf life, especially in the tropics," she said. "This is such an extraordinary thing, to see these people who have been suffering have hope for the future. Some of my best friends have died senselessly. The dying will not happen in the future because these things are preventable with the help of the drones."
Ultimately, the plan is to deliver the proper medications in a timely manner.
Small said villagers who live as they did centuries ago were coached by Stony Brook personnel ahead of time so they would not be frightened by the drones. "That was the biggest unknown, seeing how they would react," Small said, adding that "they didn't throw rocks at it."
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