Skip to main content

Local children in Malawi look on during a demonstration flight of a UAV (drone) in advance of a trial aimed at improving HIV diagnosis. The trial started Monday.

With its four tiny rotors spinning, a drone is zipping above Malawi's village rooftops this week in the early testing of an experimental high-speed delivery system for HIV diagnosis.

Drone delivery has the potential to revolutionize medical testing and supplies in Africa. Because of bad roads and poor transport, Africans often must wait months for HIV test results, and crucial medical supplies can be slow to arrive. New projects are planning to use drones to slash the waiting times.

In its first formal test on Monday afternoon, a small drone flew successfully from a rural clinic to a hospital laboratory in Malawi's capital, carrying simulated blood samples. The drone needed just 15 minutes to complete the 10-kilometre journey, with Malawians cheering and clapping as they watched, witnesses said.

The trial this week is the first known use of drones in Africa for the improvement of HIV services, officials said. The trial will continue for the rest of the week, and then costs will be analyzed.

It currently takes an average of 11 days to get blood samples from Malawi's local health centres to a central laboratory for testing for the AIDS virus. Then it takes a further eight weeks for the results to be delivered back. The delay can spell the difference between life and death, since some people with the virus will move away or lose contact with health officials during the long wait.

The new drone project, sponsored by the United Nations children's fund (UNICEF) and the Malawi government, aims to help thousands of children with HIV. Nearly 40,000 children in Malawi were born to HIV-positive mothers in 2014. About 10,000 children died from HIV-related diseases in Malawi in that same year, and less than half of them were receiving medical treatment.

Drones could be a "breakthrough" in overcoming the transport problems, according to Mahimbo Mdoe, the UNICEF representative in Malawi.

"I think it's absolutely fantastic," Mr. Mdoe said in an interview on Monday. "It can be much cheaper and faster than what we have now. It would be a leap – like going from a land line to a mobile phone."

About 10 per cent of Malawi's adult population has HIV. Blood samples are currently delivered to laboratories by motorcycle or ambulance, but deliveries are prone to "extreme delays" caused by poor roads, high fuel costs and vehicle shortages, UNICEF says.

The UN agency is spending up to $1.5-million (U.S.) annually on the delivery of HIV blood samples in Malawi. The drones, by contrast, cost only a few thousand dollars each, and operating costs are low because they are battery-powered.

With strong support from African governments, there will be few regulatory obstacles for drones in Africa – unlike in Europe or North America, where the skies are more crowded and the regulations are stricter and more time-consuming to overcome.

For the trials in Malawi this week, the drones are provided by a U.S. company, Matternet, which has been experimenting with medical deliveries by drone in developing countries such as Haiti, Bhutan and Papua New Guinea in recent years.

Another drone project, called Redline, plans to deliver medical supplies to remote parts of Rwanda as early as next year.

One of the key challenges in Africa is persuading communities to accept the drones, which they have never seen before. So the trial this week was preceded by demonstration days, in which villagers gathered to see and touch the drones. The drones were dismantled so that people could see how they carried cargo.

One government minister told a Malawian audience that the drones are nothing to do with traditional beliefs about flying creatures that can cast spells on people.

"It's very important that they're not fearful of the technology," Angela Travis, a UNICEF communications specialist, said. "But it has all gone without a hitch so far. The reaction has been very positive."

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe