ANTANANARIVO, Madagascar — Stony Brook University has launched a fully autonomous drone to collect biomedical samples in the rural district of Ifanadiana, Madagascar. While this is the first drone of its kind, the medical usage of drones has the potential to transform healthcare in Madagascar by expediting diagnosis and treatment.
With avenues of baobab trees, massive limestone formations and dense tropical rainforests, Madagascar’s unique landscape is incomparable. The remote villages of the island nation, however, suffer from extreme poverty and insufficient access to basic healthcare and sanitation.
More than 75 percent of Madagascar’s population lives in poverty. Acute malnutrition and anemia are rampant, and many children don’t receive the routine immunizations for polio, tetanus, measles, or childhood tuberculosis.
With this kind of a transportation barrier, there is nothing easy or convenient about accessing healthcare in Madagascar.
Stony Brook University Medical Center wanted to address this challenge, partnering with the startup medical drone manufacturer company: Vayu. Stony Brook has been working in Madagascar for nearly 30 years, deploying field workers by foot from a small research station on the edge of Ranomafana National Park.
In July, a small group of University public health professionals launched the first long-distance drone to land and retrieve blood samples, which were collected by a health care worker in the village.
After the medical samples were secured within the body of the aircraft, it took off and returned to the laboratory for testing. Results were obtained within two hours.
The drone itself is about the size of a picnic table, with two wings and the ability to land and take off vertically, like a helicopter. Vayu’s drone model can carry large loads, with a flight range of about 40 miles – making it a perfect choice for Stony Brook’s work.
Within hours of one round trip to a rural village in Madagascar, the research facility can diagnose a wide variety of ailments, such as tapeworm disease. Tapeworm disease is a significant contributor to malnutrition across Madagascar, and has the potential to cause fatal seizures.
Ultimately, the goal is to create an expeditious emergency medical response system. Community health workers could notice symptoms, collect blood, stool or sputum samples, use an emergency beacon to call a drone and then send those samples to the research facility. Within hours, the drone could return with the appropriate medication.
Stony Brook University Medical Centre’s endeavors are backed by the government of Madagascar and USAID. While the program is currently focusing on healthcare in Madagascar, drone technology could be deployed worldwide in the world’s poorest and hardest to reach areas.
According to Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, drones could also be used for vaccine delivery, disease surveillance and disaster relief.
Government and civilian acceptance of drones is the largest hindrance to the initiative. Ensuring governmental permission and preparing the villagers for the arrival of unmanned aircraft is essential, particularly in remote indigenous areas.
While there are innumerable life-saving uses of drones, the concept is met with hesitation. The further development of drones – for humanitarian uses – has the potential to not only transform healthcare in Madagascar, but also to expand medical action all over the world.
– Larkin Smith