Drones Could Save Lives in Malawi

Drones Could Save Lives in Malawi


Drones could be used to solve the logistical challenge of swiftly delivering HIV/AIDS care in rural Malawi, a  United Nations official said.

The government reported that 10,000 children died of HIV-related illnesses in Malawi in 2014, which is the “equivalent to a school bus full of youngsters dying every week,” said Judith Sherman, head of HIV for UNICEF in Malawi. A young child may get the virus from an HIV-positive mother during pregnancy or birth, or when the mother is breastfeeding, but drugs can reduce transmission risks.

Only half of the young people with HIV have access to treatment, and their initial diagnosis is often delayed because of poor roads.

Unlike adults, screening for the virus in children with HIV-positive mothers requires special laboratories. Only eight such laboratories exist in the country, and for many people they are hard to access.

With many Malawians living in remote villages, the blood samples from rural HIV clinics need to be transported by motorbike along dirt tracks, and that is where drones could have a revolutionary effect by slashing the waiting time for the blood test results.

The U.S.-based company Matternet has designed a drone as part of an experiment being conducted with UNICEF. Just like mobile phones transformed health care in remote areas more than a decade ago, drones could do the same for HIV programs.

Instead of using motorbikes to transport blood samples, which often require a large batch to make delivery costs worthwhile, UNICEF and Matternet are testing whether deliveries could be more efficient by air.

“This is the power of things that are unexpected,” said Paola Santana from Matternet. “People didn’t see them coming, and then they change everything.”

The drone used in the test is less than a meter long and is programmed to travel along a designated route, passing predetermined way points, which are plotted using an app.

No pilot is necessary. Instead, it requires a health worker with a password and a mobile phone’s GPS signal. At the swipe of a button, the vehicle is airborne.

Malawi’s Defense Ministry has certified the drone safe and approved an air corridor for its use. A team is running tests to measure the drone’s resilience, cost effectiveness and efficiency. The operating costs are minimal because electricity to recharge the battery is cheap, but each drone costs $7,000.