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Fri Mar 24 04:10:00 SAST 2017

Life-saving drones on way

Tanya Farber | 2015-10-26 00:23:50.0

Using drones to transport medicines to rural areas is fast becoming a reality across the world and South Africa could be just a step away from joining in.

A feasibility study by medical diagnostics expert Barry Mendelow, a former Wits University professor, has found drones to be an efficient and cost-effective way of carrying medical supplies and pathologists' specimens.

Mendelow said drones could be used to transport samples faster from rural to urban areas to speed up diagnoses.

They could also carry medical supplies to remote areas.

The first federally approved medical delivery by drone in the US was made in July. Now a British company, Foster and Partners, has proposed Rwanda for testing the world's first drone port. In Papua New Guinea, international tech company Matternet teamed up with Doctors Without Borders to carry specimens by drone in order to get diagnoses of TB confirmed as quickly as possible and curb the disease's spread.

Mendelow said drones could have a major effect on South Africa's TB crisis.

Until now medical specimens have been carried over vast distances by taxi, often on very bad roads.

"The amount of DNA needed for a TB diagnosis is minuscule and samples would be disinfected and pose no threat of spreading the disease," he said.

Mendelow said his study had found that drones would be extremely reliable and cost-effective "compared to what we pay for the current forms of transport."

When Mendelow began his research 10 years ago, no other countries were considering drones but now several have begun the process.

In South Africa, as in many other countries, the main barrier is the law.

"Drones have acquired a bad reputation because of military use.

"They are also perceived to invade individual privacy, to be used to smuggle drugs, and to generally pose a risk to people," says Mendelow.

Legislation has been enacted to counter these threats.

SA Civil Aviation Authority spokesman Kabelo Ledwaba said people wanting to start drone transport operations would have to "demonstrate a suitable safety case for evaluation".

He warned that there were "numerous factors to be considered".

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