Drones car­ry­ing medicines, blood face top chal­lenge

Jamaica Gleaner - - INTERNATIONAL NEWS -

JO­HAN­NES­BURG (AP): T FIRST, the drone took some ex­plain­ing. Anx­ious vil­lagers buzzed with ru­mours of a new blood-suck­ing thing that would fly above their homes. Witch­craft, some said.

The truth was more prac­ti­cal: A United Na­tions project would ex­plore whether a small un­manned aerial ve­hi­cle, or UAV, could de­liver HIV test sam­ples more ef­fi­ciently than land trans­port in ru­ral Malawi.

Once un­der­stand­ing dawned and work be­gan, young stu­dents and their teach­ers would spill out of the nearby school, cheer­ing, each time they heard the drone ap­proach­ing. “It was very ex­cit­ing,” UNICEF of­fi­cial Ju­dith Sher­man said.

As drones quickly pick up mo­men­tum around the world in ev­ery­thing from mil­i­tary strikes to pizza de­liv­ery, Africa, the con­ti­nent with some of the most en­trenched hu­man­i­tar­ian crises, hopes the tech­nol­ogy will bring progress.

This sec­ond-largest con­ti­nent, with harsh land­scapes of desert and rain for­est, and ex­tremes of rainy sea­sons

Aand drought, is bur­dened with what the World Bank has called “the worst in­fra­struc­ture en­dow­ment of any de­vel­op­ing re­gion today”. Ru­ral high­ways, often un­paved, dis­in­te­grate. In many coun­tries, ac­cess to elec­tric­ity has ac­tu­ally de­clined. Tak­ing to the air to soar over such chal­lenges, much as Africa em­braced mo­bile phones to by­pass often dis­mal land­line ser­vice, is a tempt­ing goal.

Those try­ing out drones for hu­man­i­tar­ian uses in Africa warn that the tech­nol­ogy is no quick fix, but sev­eral new projects are ex­plor­ing what can be achieved.

The high­est-pro­file one yet be­gins this week in Rwanda, as the govern­ment and US com­pany Zi­pline launch a drone net­work to de­liver blood sup­plies and medicines to re­mote hos­pi­tals and clin­ics. Even in one of Africa’s small­est coun­tries, such de­liv­er­ies can take weeks by land. With drones, it will take hours.

The speed and lim­ited space of drones have fo­cused aid groups and busi­nesses on how to de­liver small, sen­si­tive and po­ten­tially life-sav­ing cargo. Ear­lier this year, a part­ner­ship was an­nounced be­tween Zi­pline and the Global Al­liance for Vac­cines and Im­mu­niza­tion.

Off Africa’s east­ern coast in Mada­gas­car, an­other US com­pany, Vayu, has com­pleted drone flights to de­liver blood and stool sam­ples from ru­ral vil­lages with sup­port from the US Agency for In­ter­na­tional De­vel­op­ment.

Africa has cer­tain ben­e­fits for such projects, said Sid Ru­pani, who, from his South Africa of­fice, stud­ies how drones could be used ef­fec­tively in sup­ply chains. His US-based em­ployer, Lla­ma­soft, has run a vir­tual pi­lot for Zi­pline in Tan­za­nia.

“It’s not crowded airspace; not many ur­ban ar­eas to deal with,” Ru­pani said. Al­ready, drones are be­ing used in parts of the con­ti­nent as visual aids in map­ping and an­tipoach­ing.

Drones also face mul­ti­ple chal­lenges. Some mod­els are lim­ited in range or need fre­quent recharg­ing. If they crash, re­trieval in re­mote ar­eas can be dif­fi­cult. Some gov­ern­ments are wary of the tech­nol­ogy as a pos­si­ble in­va­sion of their sovereignty, or they have no reg­u­la­tions in place.

Even aid work­ers have reser­va­tions. In a sur­vey of work­ers in 61 coun­tries re­leased last month by the Hu­man­i­tar­ian UAV Net­work and other groups, the ma­jor­ity saw drones as pos­i­tive, but 22 per cent did not.

A top con­cern was that peo­ple on the ground would think they were un­der at­tack.

“Whether we like it or not, UAVs are con­fused with weaponized drones,” one Congo aid worker told the sur­vey, point­ing out the use of drones by the UN peace­keep­ing mis­sion there.

Cost is an­other is­sue. The United Na­tions’ test early this year in Malawi, with the help of US com­pany Mat­ter­net found that us­ing mo­tor­cy­cles was cheaper as they could carry other cargo, said Sher­man, UNICEF’s HIV and AIDS chief there.

But she still sees drones as “a leapfrog tech­nol­ogy that has great po­ten­tial, some we might not have thought of yet”.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Jamaica

© PressReader. All rights reserved.