The U.S. Is Using Drones to Fight an Age-Old Enemy

Source: Getty Images
Source: Getty Images

Drones have a bad reputation, but they could be key to battling deadly diseases in the developing world. A start-up in Palo Alto, California, wants to reinvent how medicine and patient diagnosis are transported in rural parts of the world.

Last month, Matternet brought drones to Papua New Guinea, which is currently experiencing an epidemic of tuberculosis that's mostly affecting people in remote regions of the country. Matternet executives traveled there at the invitation of the government and Doctors Without Borders staff to see if drones could present an effective solution to the biggest hurdles in fighting diseases in the developing world: making an accurate diagnosis.

"We're working in one of the biggest swamps in the world," Doctors Without Borders program manager Eric Pujo told Fast Company. "It is a very challenging environment, and to run a good tuberculosis project, one of the key points is diagnostic. The earlier you can put a patient under treatment, the more likely you'll stop it from spreading."

Matternet's pilot project used a quadcopter drone, which costs $5,000, to carry dummy payloads of 10 TB test samples over 12 to 15 miles of mountainous and swampy land. Its longest trip yet was 27 miles, a journey that would take about four hours in a vehicle, which the drone completed in less than an hour.

Finally, drones we can use: Public opinion on drones has been shaped largely by the unmanned aircrafts the U.S. military deploys to eliminate insurgents and alleged terrorist agents from Yemen to Pakistan. The heavy collateral damage and deaths of innocent civilians in past drone operations has sparked outrage from the international community. A June Pew Research Center survey found that in 39 of 44 countries, majorities or pluralities "oppose U.S. drone strikes targeting extremists in countries such as Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia." Opposition to drone attacks has increased in many nations since last year. 

Other applications for drones are starting to appear on the horizon. More recently, Amazon announced planned drone delivery options, and Facebook laid out a roadmap for using unmanned drones to bring Internet access to the furthest reaches of the globe.

Access to medical care seems like a perfect application for drones, especially in the developing world. According to the World Health Organization, 13 low- and middle-income countries do not have at least an average of one district hospital per one million inhabitants. The WHO notes that while some developing countries have made "substantial progress" in increasing access to medicine and treatments for illnesses like HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis, overall access in developing countries is "not adequate."

Density of physicians (total number per 1000 population), 2012
Source: 
World Health Organization

"In developing countries, health care is often delivered by a lone nurse practitioner in a one-room clinic," according to a 2008 WHO report on primary health care in Africa. "As they battle AIDS, tuberculosis, malnutrition, malaria and other diseases, the practitioners frequently lack access to electricity or running water, let alone medical information, a telephone or the Internet. Often the quality of care a patient receives is limited to whatever knowledge the nurse retained from basic training."

There's a drone for that: That's where Matternet comes in. In a June 2013 talk given at a TED conference, Andreas Raptopoulos discussed the significance of building drone transportation networks in developing countries. 

Source: YouTube

"One-seventh of the Earth's population are totally cut off for some part of the year," he said. "We cannot get medicine to them reliably, they cannot get critical supplies and they cannot get their goods to market in order to create a sustainable income."

For places like Papua New Guinea and sub-Saharan Africa, where infrastructure still has a long way to go, this is a game-changer. After all, modern medicine is only useful if you can physically get to it.

How likely are you to make Mic your go-to news source?

Coleen Jose

Coleen Jose is a multimedia journalist and documentary photographer based in New York City writing on international news and U.S. foreign policy for Mic. Previously, she reported across the Philippines for GlobalPost and Scientific American. She has also reported on environmental exploitation as a grantee of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and examines the role of climate change in global security.

MORE FROM

Grizzly bear protections in Yellowstone National park are ending

A final ruling by US government officials will strike the Yellowstone grizzly bear from the list of threatened species after its population increased to 700.

Another day, another off-camera White House press briefing

The move to scale back on-camera press briefings comes amid Trump's increasing unwillingness to interact with the press.

Minneapolis might get a $15 minimum wage, but restaurant workers aren't celebrating

Discord has been brewing in Minneapolis over whether tipped work will be counted toward a $15 minimum wage.

These abysmal new poll numbers for House health care bill don't bode well for Senate version

Only 34% of Republicans approve of the new proposed law.

'Pizzagate' shooter gets 4-year prison sentence, lawyers urged judge to deter vigilantism

Welch stormed a Washington, D.C., pizza place and shot off a firearm because of the internet.

American Health Care Act by the numbers: What to know about Senate Republicans' secret health plan

After drafting the ACA repeal and replace plan behind closed doors, the AHCA is out — and Senate Republican leaders are hoping to vote on it in a week.

Grizzly bear protections in Yellowstone National park are ending

A final ruling by US government officials will strike the Yellowstone grizzly bear from the list of threatened species after its population increased to 700.

Another day, another off-camera White House press briefing

The move to scale back on-camera press briefings comes amid Trump's increasing unwillingness to interact with the press.

Minneapolis might get a $15 minimum wage, but restaurant workers aren't celebrating

Discord has been brewing in Minneapolis over whether tipped work will be counted toward a $15 minimum wage.

These abysmal new poll numbers for House health care bill don't bode well for Senate version

Only 34% of Republicans approve of the new proposed law.

'Pizzagate' shooter gets 4-year prison sentence, lawyers urged judge to deter vigilantism

Welch stormed a Washington, D.C., pizza place and shot off a firearm because of the internet.

American Health Care Act by the numbers: What to know about Senate Republicans' secret health plan

After drafting the ACA repeal and replace plan behind closed doors, the AHCA is out — and Senate Republican leaders are hoping to vote on it in a week.