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How medical drones help save lives in Tanzania

That drone overhead may not be photographing real estate, at least in remote areas of the world. Right now – and into the future – it could be delivering life-sustaining medical treatments and transporting lab tests for faster processing.

That’s what’s happening for the 400,000 residents of the Ukerewe island district of Lake Victoria, Tanzania, a six-hour land and lake ferry trip (240 kilometers) from their main medical center in Mwanza. The residents suffer from treatable waterborne illnesses such as cholera, dysentery and typhoid, and their blood and lab tests cannot be processed quickly using traditional transportation.

Enter “Deliver Future,” a pilot project by DHL, German drone manufacturer Wingcopter and the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH on behalf of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ). Over a six-month period, the drone logged at least 180 takeoffs and landings, flying 2,200 kilometers in more than 2,000 recorded flight minutes. The autonomous DHL Parcelcopter 4.0 reached the Ukerewe island district in just 40 minutes, and it did this up to seven times a day.

The drone technology allowed for faster blood test processing on the mainland, while blood samples remained in controlled -temperatures in the drone compartment. Done transportation allowed for faster diagnosis and treatment, with test results communicated by computer.

This isn’t DHL’s first foray into using drones for medical deliveries. In 2014 DHL made history with the first drone medical delivery over open sea, to the North Sea island of Juist, Germany. DHL was the first parcel service to incorporate drones into the delivery chain, adding drone parcel service to two communities in the Bavarian Alps in 2016.

“If you can send a drone in a straight line, as opposed to driving around mountains, through traffic or across icy roads, you may well save patients’ lives who would be in danger in both remote and urban areas,” says Robert Graboyes, a senior research fellow and healthcare scholar at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

The sky’s the limit for using drones in the medical realm: Transporting organs for transplant, delivering medical kits in emergency situations before first responders can arrive, vaccine delivery to remote areas and accessing remote villages worldwide to improve medical care and delivery are just some of the potential applications. — Deborah Kaplan

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Published: June 2019

Images: DHL

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