Many Americans are suspicious when they see a drone flying overhead. But for people around the world who are cut off from roads, drones could help make a lifesaving connection to medicines and labs.
A startup named Vayu late last week said its unmanned aerial vehicle had made the first long-range, fully independent flights carrying delicate blood and stool samples from remote villages to a lab. The basic technology isn't new, but Vayu's airborne experiment, over the mountainous terrain of Madagascar, could kick off a game-changing system of transport. UAVs could carry vaccines, medicines, and samples sensitive to temperature and pressure—to diagnose tapeworm, for example—for some of the one billion people who lack access to good roads.
Vayu's drone, "designed specifically for last-mile delivery of critical healthcare supplies in developing countries," can take off and land vertically, without benefit of runway or launcher, and carry 2 kilograms (about 4.5 pounds) of medical supplies up to 60 kilometers (nearly 40 miles).
Take a look at the company's celebratory video, in which the drone transports its critical cargo 13 kilometers in minutes. The reel may be an unmanned aerial marketing vehicle, but it's also pretty cool, with vertiginous pans of the beautiful, unnavigable countryside, your daily quotient of rad drone footage, and excited spectators whose health, or lives, may depend on UAVs.
Vayu, founded in 2014 and based in Michigan, works in Madagascar together with the Stony Brook University Global Health Institute and with the support of local governments and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). It is working on a drone that can fly for 100 kilometers (62 miles) and plans to use the technology in Papua New Guinea, Malawi, the Philippines, and Nepal.
If Vayu and other companies working the problem succeed in overcoming the mountains and the skepticism, UAVs are likely to play an increasingly important role in emergency response and critical-resource delivery.