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When doctors can't reach sick people in Madagascar, they send this medicine-carrying drone

Due to the continued use of drone strikes by the military, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) are often associated more with ending lives than saving them. That’s a trend researchers at Stony Brook University want to help reverse.

Working with medical drone manufacturer Vayu, they’ve been developing tools for use in rural Madagascar: using UAVs to help deliver cutting-edge medical technology to the most isolated communities.

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“A billion people in the world do not have access to reliable roads,” Dr. Peter Small, the Founding Director of Stony Brook’s Global Health Institute, told Digital Trends. “For them, getting sick requires running a gauntlet in order to get healthcare. That’s very common in Madagascar, where 70 percent of people live in very rural settings, and a significant number live in truly remote settings. These are places that are only accessible on foot; you can’t even get a bicycle there. The idea [of our work] is that by using drones we can not just fly out to villages, but collect diagnostic specimens and deliver care. It’s really revolutionary.”

Backed by the Madagascar government and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Stony Brook’s Global Health Institute recently completed the world’s first ever long-range, fully autonomous drone flights — in which stool and blood samples were collected in rural villages and then flown to Stony Brook University’s Centre ValBio research station for further testing.

Not only can Vayu’s drone take off and land like a helicopter, but it can also cover the kinds of long distances required for this work.

From here, the plan is to expand the program to help transform medicine in some of the world’s poorest and most difficult-to-reach areas. “The cool thing about this is the bigger picture: how we can use drone technology to forward-deploy healthcare,” Dr. Small said. “What I’m envisioning is a system in which a health worker has a patient with an undiagnosed cough, and can then use an emergency beacon to call in a drone. That drone could then fly back a sputum sample to the lab and, if it tests positive for [tuberculosis] the drone flies back the next day with the medication it needs.”

Did we already mention the bit about how potentially revolutionary this all is?