There are more than two billion people lacking adequate access to essential medical care, particularly due to challenging terrain and gaps in infrastructure. Because of this, over 2.9 million children under age five die every year, and up to 150,000 pregnancy-related deaths could be avoided each year if mothers had reliable access to safe blood transfusions.
The government of Madagascar and medical drone manufacturer Vayu are working together to develop tools for use in rural Madagascar, using UAVs to help deliver cutting-edge medical technology to the country's most isolated communities.
In Madagascar, 70 percent of people live in remote rural areas, and some of these areas are only accessible on foot. The idea is that by using drones, Vayu will fly out supplies to villages, and use the same drones to collect diagnostic specimens and deliver care.
The project is backed by the Madagascar government and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). A trial with a fully autonomous drone saw the delivery of blood samples from rural Madagascar to a central lab.
According to Vayu's founder Daniel Pepper, the company aims to bridge the gap between far-flung villages and health centres which are often located in towns and urban areas, out of reach for rural communities.
Vayu's drones took two years to develop and will be used to serve and connect rural villages to central hospitals. The company hopes to enable villages outside the grid to diagnose and treat ailments via drone-delivered test samples and vaccines, preventing unnecessary deaths and illnesses.
"The biggest hurdle has been regulatory rather than technical," said Pepper. "Currently, no countries provide blanket permission for beyond-line-of-sight autonomous flight."
In the areas that Vayu targets, "there is not enough space for a runway or resting net; this lack of infrastructure means the drone has to take off and land vertically", said Pepper.
The drone must therefore rise and touch down in helicopter fashion, though this hover method during flight could prevent the drone from making the 60km journey, Pepper said.
"Drones are 10 times more efficient in forward flight than during hovering," he said.
To overcome this, Vayu's drone has helicopter-style propellers attached to static plane-like wings. This wing-and-propeller combination allows Vayu's drone to land precisely while still flying long distances economically.
Vayu's project comes after Rwanda's government partnered with Zipline to connect medical centres in the remote south-west of the country with medical centres in the capital Kigali and other urban areas.
While such technologies from Vayu and Zipline are revolutionary in that they overcome the challenges presented by terrain and lack of logistical infrastructure to deliver healthcare services to marginalised communities, this is only part of the problem.
Vaccines are only useful if village health workers are able to administer them, and diagnoses can only be made if samples are taken in sterile conditions and packaged correctly.
Peter Small, founding director of Stony Brook University Global Health Institute, who has worked alongside Pepper in launching the Vayu project in Madagascar, said he was currently working on a full-circle project.
"The project trains village health workers to identify prolonged coughs and send for drones to deliver tuberculosis testing kits," he said.
Upon return to the lab, the drone will fly back out with suitable medication should the samples test positive for TB. This delivery will also include a tablet containing video instructions to enable untrained individuals to administer the treatment.
Vayu plans to launch other pilot projects in Papua New Guinea, Peru and Nepal, among other countries as it seeks to revolutionise health care in the world.