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


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."

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. 

"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.