Drones for Good: Delivering Off-Grid Healthcare

By Sophie Curtis on September 15, 2015

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The usage of drones by companies and individuals is increasing exponentially, with new uses and applications hitting the headlines every day. But how can we use unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to positively impact the world and solve 21st century challenges?

Startup company Medrone aims to do just that, using drones to deliver much-needed medical supplies to difficult to reach areas, effectively using the novel method of transportation to make the world a better place.

A spin-off of the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences, Medrone goes a step further to ensure a safe flight for these supplies by powering drones with artificial vision to avoid people and obstacles in their path that GPS cannot foresee. Their aim is to transport vaccines, medicine, blood samples and other critical goods to and from disconnected and off-grid areas, as well heavily congested cities and where the safest route is overhead.

Alessandro Crimi, a Researcher at the Italian Institute of Technology and Lecturer at the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences, founded Medrone and believes that innovation is useless unless it is brought into practice. At the RE.WORK Future Technology Summit next week, Alessandro will present the beneficial impact of rural community projects in Ghana using mobile devices and UAVs. We caught up with him ahead of the summit to hear more.

Give us an outline of your current work in drones and and artificial vision for delivering medicines.
Medicine delivery in disconnected rural areas is big challenge. Thus drones may be very helpful towards that direction. So far commercial drones can be piloted by an operator seeing the drone or using the First-Person-View monitor, but in both cases there is a range limitation. Autonomous navigation systems exist using GPS reading and removing the range limitation. However, these flights have no control on avoiding obstacles, like trees or houses, and landing in a safe place is considered very challenging. We are developing a system to overcome all limitations already mentioned where the drone using a monocular camera and a GPS can travel towards the goal position avoiding obstacles using artificial vision algorithms. This will make the drone’s delivery safe and allows the last mile delivery of rare medical supply in rural areas.

What additional industries do you think will be disrupted by drones in the future?
Drones could be helpful in various areas. Industry could use drones for object delivery, for inspections and rescue tasks, message passings, mapping, or even tourist guidance.

What developments can we expect to see in drones in the next 5 years?
Since drones can carry right now only light weight objects and the battery does not last for long, for the next 5 years drones will be mainly used for inspection, for instance in disaster scenarios. We imagine breakthroughs in weight management and battery life (e.g. the solar panel on the Aquila-Drone) will come as well.

Legal and supportive framework exists in Europe and USA, but not really in the rest of the world. This will come as well. Further regulations will come in terms of privacy and management of the acquired data. Although the use is very attractive for disaster recovery, rescue and harsh conditions, even in 5 years from now these operations in conflict areas will still remain in the hands of military institutions.

Which areas do you feel could benefit from cross-industry collaboration with drones and artificial vision?
Standard computer vision algorithms need to be generalized in order to take into account all the possible variability and all the community will benefit from these improvements which can be applied to several areas, including automotive, earth topography, 3D reconstruction and robotics.

Moreover the interested areas are those involved in natural disaster where it is difficult for human to go, therefore all humanitarian contexts can benefit by the use of drones.

What advancements excite you most in the field?
  • The fact that drones are becoming cheaper and accessible for a lot more people. This makes them ideal for education, health services, and industrial use.
  • The possibility of having an impact on the lives of people experiencing challenges.
  • The novelty this transportation offers, namely that it can overcome several barriers encountered by means currently used in our society.

Alessandro Crimi will be speaking at the Future Technology Summit in London on 24-25 September. Other speakers solving 21st century challenges include Daniel Becerra, Managing Director of Buffalo Grid; Elaine Warburton, CEO & Co-Founder of QuantuMDx; and Jonathan Keeling, Head of Business Development at Pavegen.

The Future Technology Summit is taking place alongside the Deep Learning Summit For more information and to register, please visit the event website here.

UAVs Dangerous Environments Drones Computer Vision Mobile Devices AI Healthcare MedTech Smart Transport Future Technology Summit


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