By Megan Williams, contributing writer
As technology is wont to do, drones have grown beyond purely military application and entered the civilian sector
The World Health Organization (WHO) has teamed up with Matternet, a California tech company, to explore the use of drones in the delivery of medical supplies to remote regions of Bhutan, according to Health IT Outcomes.
Matternet started getting attention in 2013, after CEO, Andreas Raptopoulos’ TED talk about the application of drones to the healthcare industry. His talks at the time focused on Africa and Haiti. “Imagine if you are in Mali with a newborn in urgent need of medication — it may take days to come … 1 billion people on Earth have no access to all-season roads.”
The company started with octocopters delivering medicine to the Petionville camp in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti, after the 2010 earthquake, according to Healthcare IT News.
Bhutan, located in South Asia, currently battles a doctor to patient ration of 1:3300. That statistic is challenging on its own, but healthcare delivery in the country also means navigating the obstacles inherent in navigating the Himalayan mountain range. These traits together, made Bhutan an excellent testing ground for the WHO and Matternet to explore the benefits of medical package delivery through drones.
According to Raptopoulous, “The beauty of this technology is its autonomy. There’s no pilot needed to fly this vehicle. They fly using GPS waypoints from one landing station to the next. Once they arrive at a landing station, they swap battery and load automatically. This is the heart of our system … we believe that Matternet can do for the transportation of matter what the Internet did for the flow of information.”
According to Quartz, the drones in Bhutan are small, quadcopters, capable of carrying loads of about four pounds, a distance of 20km at a time between pre-designated landing stations. Matternet can track the flights in real-time, and plans to eventually incorporate the automated landing stations that will replace drone batteries, thereby extending flight times. Each drone costs between $2,000 and $5,000. So far, they’ve functioned without any glitches.
Phil Finnegan, an analyst at the Teal Group (a U.S.-based firm that analyzes the aerospace industry), says they see a potential market in civil government and commercial that will reach $5.4 billion over the next ten years, with applications in agriculture and humanitarian efforts.