Drone technology is advancing rapidly. In 1990, it would have been hard to imagine that mobile phones and internet technology would completely transform society within 30 years and become ubiquitous, even in the least developed corners of the world. Today, drones, or uncrewed aerial vehicles are being tested for many different applications, from Amazon package deliveries to malarial risk mapping.
In rural Nepal, the biggest challenge for healthcare delivery is the lack of an effective transport infrastructure. Healthcare workers or patients often walk for many hours to reach services and essential supplies are often out of stock. What if a drone could zip across a valley in the hills and deliver a sample or a medicine in minutes, instead of hours? BNMT is piloting the application of drones in TB service delivery using a ‘hub and spoke’ model to network health posts to GeneXpert testing centres. If the drone network can be successfully established there are many more potential applications such as delivering ante venom for snakebite victims or emergency magnesium sulphate/TIA to birthing centres to save women from dying in childbirth. The potential for such a network is immense, but there are many challenges to set up the network. BNMT is working with the National TB Centre and drone experts at Nepal Flying Labs, WeRobotics, Switzerland, Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine and Stony Brook University, USA, to develop a pilot drone network in Pyuthan district and establish a roadmap for scale-up to other districts of Nepal.
DrOTS Nepal (Drone Optimised Therapy System) is designed for the early and rapid diagnosis of new TB cases in Pyuthan through the utilization of– drones and smart pillboxes, to support overcoming the access barrier in remote geographically isolated areas and improve treatment adherence/patient compliance. The drones collect sputum samples of people with TB symptoms and fly them to the laboratory of the district hospital and Primary Health Care Centre (PHC) in Bhingri for GeneXpert testing. If the samples are positive, the project is also using smart pill boxes to make the six month TB treatment easier for the patient. These innovative pillboxes remind the patient to take the drugs every day, and keep an electronic record of each dose taken that can be reviewed by a healthcare worker. This removes the need for the patient to attend the TB clinic daily for direct observation’, which is very difficult in remote areas.