Drones Can Save Lives in Developing World, But a Common Framework is Needed

By Bradley Berman — Lead Editor

A couple of pizza pies covered with cheese, chicken, and cranberries made transportation history last year when they were delivered by drone to a couple in Auckland, New Zealand. That was the world’s first delivery of its kind and therefore garnered headlines around the world. But the industry producing unmanned flying and self-driving vehicles is setting its sights on goals much greater than sky-bound snacks: saving lives by delivering food and medicines to hard-to-reach regions in the developing world.

As a first step, world governments, working in partnership with tech start-ups and NGOs, are using drones to survey difficult terrain — collecting and transmitting data about a disaster zone or the status of an agricultural project. Agencies can gather critical information while avoiding costly or risky field visits.

That’s just the beginning. Drones can also be used to deliver medical supplies, food, water, and equipment to areas with limited transportation infrastructure. Last year, the journal Vaccine published a study in which computer simulations showed how drones could save money and time compared to delivering vaccines by land. In many regions, road conditions are unreliable, making it difficult to deliver medicine that could treat diseases such as hepatitis B, tetanus, and measles — or battle outbreaks of dengue, malaria, and Zika.

Unfortunately, many nations lack funds for new roads, which are expensive to build and maintain — and could be washed away in the next rainy season. In response, start-up drone-tech companies say that drones can rapidly respond with little to no infrastructure. They assert that a new generation of drones can be built with off-the-shelf components and open-source electronics and software. Some can carry a five-pound payload as far as 60 miles — completing numerous trips in a single day.

“You make [life-saving] vaccines, but they’re of no value if we don’t get them to the people who need them,” said senior author Bruce Y. Lee, MD, MBA, an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Among the numerous pilot projects to date, Médecins Sans Frontières used drones to collect and transport tuberculosis samples in Papua New Guinea. UNICEF tested the feasibility for transporting lab samples and blood in Malawi and Tanzania. And missions coordinated by the World Bank used unmanned drones to respond to a cyclone in the Pacific, an earthquake in Nepal, and a typhoon in the Philippines.

Communication and Coordination

Those projects reveal great promise for drone-based development work, but there are numerous obstacles. Many world governments lack a clear regulatory framework for ensuring legal and safe deployment of drones.

Lacking established processes, drone companies can wait many months for an official permit — with lives hanging in the balance. In the mayhem after a disaster hits, the skies above the affected area can become crowded with drones launched by multiple entities — including start-up companies with no experience flying in the area. Sadly, the data to support critical outcomes is seldom shared between organizations.

In some cases, individual drones don’t have the range or payload to transport necessary supplies to affected areas. The answer could be multiple drones owned by different teams working in unison — operating like a single platoon — but there’s concern about the cost and complexity of a centralized air-traffic control system for drones.

Development and technology experts are instead calling for the creation of common yet flexible communications protocols. One emerging potential open-source solution is DAV — a decentralized system using technology utilized on the blockchain to discover, communicate, and transact between all types of autonomous vehicles. DAV enables cooperation between various autonomous vehicle operators without the need for major up-front investment by one party. DAV is developing the infrastructure upon which all autonomous vehicles can operate, allowing anyone to link their drone, car or truck to the network, providing users access to those vehicles for a fee. Its approach could allow new players to innovate and scale their drone and self-driving solutions, whether used to deliver pizzas in Poughkeepsie or medicine in Malawi.

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