These SA drones bring healing, not war

SHEREE BEGA IT'S CALLED the e-Juba, and Professor Barry Mendelow and his team at the National Health Laboratory Service believe the lightweight electronic carrier pigeon can help save lives in some of the most remote parts of South Africa.

For more than a decade, the Wits emeritus professor has led a novel research project involving Denel and drone researchers, which has shown how pre-pro- grammed robotic medical couriers can be used to ferry medical cargoes between rural clinics and urban centres.

"When we started our project several years ago, the average wait was six weeks for a diagno- sis of tuberculosis. Now it can be done with this mobility in one day," said Mendelow, who pre- sented some of his findings last week at the AJ Orenstein Memo- rial Lecture at Wits.

South Africa, he points out, still has the highest annual incidence of TB in the world, with the "poor logistical support for the diagnostic process" cited as one of the major bottlenecks in the effective treatment of rural patients.

"While exploring a helicopter collection service... it became obvious that efficient collections could only be accomplished from the air.

" Inspired by the precedent of using carrier pigeons to trans- port blood samples for trans- fusion compatibility testing, Mendelow approached Denel Dynamics, with the objective that Denel, a world leader in drone engineering, develop a cargo carrier drone for the National Health Laboratory Service.

"This had the express purpose of transporting medical diagnostic samples from remote rural clinics to laboratories up to 100km away

" Another purpose was to trans- port much-needed therapeutic supplies such as blood, snakebite serum or rabies immune globu- lin, from central depots such as hospitals to remote clinics.

"The result was e-Juba (iJuba is Zulu for pigeon, so e-Juba is the electronic pigeon), a successful proof-of-concept drone for medical logistic supply There followed a number of other test flights in KwaZulu-Natal and the Overberg region of the Western Cape, using real and dummy medical sample cargoes.

" He and his team then used a much smaller, cheaper prototype carrier drone, developed by Jaco Davel of Somerset West, which could be launched by hand and was "found to be ideal for the transport of disinfected sputum samples for DNA-based molecu- lar diagnosis of TB and identifi- cation of sequences indicative of drug resistance".

"It also proved that the... profile could be received by the remote rural sender on the same day the patient first presented." In 2009, the National Health Laboratory Service issued a tender for a medical diagnostic sample drone delivery service. Three South African companies filed proposals.

The trials, comprised of 300 fully audited flights of up to 30km, were concluded in 2010, and proved how reliable the technology was.

"We didn't lose a single cargo or artefact in over 300 test flights," he said. The trials also demonstrated the potential for a "dramatic reduction" in costs compared with land-based car- rier solutions.

Mendelow said the Civil Avia- tion Authority is preparing regu- lations for the use of drones in South African airspace. "We're confident that in the next five years we'll see a dramatic use of drones as carrying medical cargoes, which is most exciting and viable."

Globally, cargo-carrying drones are garnering unprece- dented growth in interest.