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Drones to the rescue

LiveMint logoLiveMint 05-09-2017 Rahul Matthan

A majority of the 11 million citizens of Rwanda live outside the capital Kigali in areas so remote that getting there by road is a nightmare. Access to most of the nearly 500 health centres and district hospitals outside the capital requires you to drive down unpaved roads, through rugged, hilly terrain made all the more impassable by the twice-yearly rains. Consequently, one of the biggest challenges hospitals in remote locations have to contend with is being able to get blood when they need it. 

To be useable, blood needs to be stored between 2 and 6 degrees centigrade. If the temperature falls below 2 degrees it could result in haemolysis (a condition where the blood cells rupture causing fatal bleeding or renal failure), if it rises above 6 degrees centigrade it could result in bacterial contamination. Once removed from the refrigerator, the blood must be used within 30 minutes, offering a very small window of utility in locations where the infrastructure is poor. This means that, for the most part, patients in Rwanda who need blood stand a better chance of surviving if they drive to a larger city for treatment than wait for the blood to get to them.

Rwanda has the highest population density of any African country and a fortuitously compact shape. Had it not been for its decrepit road network, it would have been the ideal location to deploy a hub-and-spoke model for blood delivery-locating blood banks with adequate stocks at the centre so that they can be delivered when required to all hospitals within a thirty minute drive of the hub.

A California start-up called Zipline has come up with an ingenious solution to this problem. They have developed a drone delivery service that completely bypasses the road network, delivering blood to remote hospitals in the western half of the country using fixed-wing autonomous aircraft launched from a central hub. Zipline will eventually make 150 deliveries a day to 21 medical stations using 15 specially designed drones. 

They consciously chose fixed-wing drones over the more common quadcopters since fixed-wing drones are able to better withstand bad weather. Their drones are launched by catapult and cruise at 95kmph at an altitude of below 400ft autonomously following the GPS coordinates of its pre-programmed flight path. When the drone reaches its destination it descends to 45ft and ejects the package at a time and direction carefully coordinated by software to ensure that the package parachutes into the compound of the hospital.

The use of drones to solve a pressing medical challenge is pure genius. It demonstrates how this technology that has, so far, only been used in military or recreational contexts, is capable of being used in a number of alternative practical applications. It is a fabulous example of how technology can be redeployed to solve complex problems that would otherwise have required massive investments in infrastructure and an inordinate amount of time to complete. 

India has very similar challenges. We too have remote areas that are regularly deprived of essential services and are stranded during heavy rains or natural disasters. We face much the same challenges as Rwanda does in trying to provide medical support to residents in these areas. The ability to use drone technologies for medical deliveries would be invaluable. In fact, this is almost exactly the kind of rough and ready innovation that one would have expected from an Indian entrepreneur—so much so that I am surprised we didn’t think of it first.

That said, there is one big difference between Rwanda and India. When the government of Rwanda learned of the benefits that drone technologies could bring, they quickly changed their aviation regulations permitting drone operations below 500ft. This allowed Zipline to run pilot programmes to prove the capabilities of the service, allowing them to learn valuable operational lessons along the way. 

India on the other hand, in response to the proliferation of drone technology, developed a policy that seems to have been specifically designed to stifle its use. Drones above a particular weight threshold are heavily regulated with stipulations that their pilots have to be specially trained and that the drone must always remain in visual range. Import restrictions and the requirement for special operational clearances make this a business that most would baulk at even attempting. 

We’ve always been known, as a nation, for our innovative approach to problem-solving and our ability to repurpose technology so that it delivers far more than what it was designed to. We use the term jugaad as a badge of honour, signifying a particular brand of innovativeness that is uniquely Indian. But when it comes to regulations we seem hell-bent on placing more and more impediments in the way of innovation. 

Jugaad in design is all very well—it’s time to apply that to our laws.

Rahul Matthan is a partner at Trilegal. Ex Machina is a column on technology, law and everything in between.

His Twitter handle is @matthan

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