One day a drone may save your life

Tubercolosis (TB) kills around 2 million people each year, around one-in-four of those who become infected with the disease, according to the World Health Organization.

doctor drone

It is known that early diagnosis and treatment of the disease saves lives, and this prompted Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) to identify an innovative way to use smartphone-controlled drones to help fight the disease in Papua New Guinea. Medical teams found this fight hampered by poor road conditions, which made it incredibly difficult for medical teams to reach remote communities there.

MSF worked with US drone firm, Matternet, trialling use of small unmanned quadcopter drones to transport sputum samples collected at remote health centers from patients with suspected TB to Kerema general hospital for testing. They are still figuring out how to transport results and treatments back to remote communities using the 40mph, 20-mile range drones.

“While there is still fine-tuning of the UAV system to be done during the trial phase, initial signs indicate that this may be a useful method of connecting remote health centers to otherwise inaccessible hospitals in the future,” MSF said.

fireman drone

Use of drones to get diagnosis, treatment and support to remote communities isn’t the only way drone technology is already saving lives. Fire and emergency crews worldwide use them to assess building and house fires to help fire crews figure out where to target the blaze. A video released by the Plymouth Fire Department shows how drones helped emergency chiefs survey damage to coastline following a storm.

In Laos, Arch Aerial drones are mapping out mine fields locating unexploded bombs as part of a relief effort to ease the consequences of the over two million tonnes of bombs dropped on the country during the Vietnam War. Over 20,000 civilians in Laos have been mained or killed by unexploded ordinance since the war ended in 1973.

To find these bombs these drones use LIDAR, a remote laser imaging radar. Recent advances in laser imaging technology enable the system to “see” through vegetation in order to create detailed maps of the terrain. These maps are then analyzed for telltale signs of bombing, such as the presence of trenches or bunkers.

farmer drone

Drones may also help find and protect water supplies. Working for the oil industry PrecisionHawk drones collect samples from remote and inaccessible locations to check for signs of pollution or oil leaks. Another water-related use sees researchers at the University of California use drones to collect water samples for DNA extraction and sequencing in order to track endangered species. In South Africa rangers patrol against poachers using drones.

Unmanned flying vehicles also have a part to play in agriculture. Swiss drone manufacturer senseFly has developed software that enables agriculturalists to capture high-resolution photos of fields, analyse crop health and create accurate prescriptions to load into their precision farming equipment. In combination with remote M2M agricultural systems these solutions could have a huge impact on remote agricultural deployments.

Finally another firm called BioCarbon, has developed a way to use drones to seed around a billion trees each year.

These are just a few examples to illustrate the potential drone technology has to help save lives. It will be interesting to see how these solutions are used in future.

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Jon Evans

Jon Evans is a highly experienced technology journalist and editor. He has been writing for a living since 1994. These days you might read his daily regular Computerworld AppleHolic and opinion columns. Jon is also technology editor for men's interest magazine, Calibre Quarterly, and news editor for MacFormat magazine, which is the biggest UK Mac title. He's really interested in the impact of technology on the creative spark at the heart of the human experience. In 2010 he won an American Society of Business Publication Editors (Azbee) Award for his work at Computerworld.