In April 2015, Red de Salud de Ladera – a network of hospitals and public health centres in the Cali area – asked for permission from the Minister of Health to use drones to transport blood samples to labs and medicine to patients in rural areas.
Aeronautical engineer Daniel Salamanca launched the company Nuba Drones in December 2015 with the specific aim of building drones to be used in the health sector.
He teamed up with three other experts (another aeronautical engineer, an industrial designer and a project manager) and started manufacturing drones using materials purchased abroad (carbon fibre from the United States, electronic equipment from China, etc). Their offices are located in Bogota.
"Time means lives in the health sector”
There a few rural health centres located in the mountains to the east of the city. They are about seven kilometres from Siloé hospital, one of the main hospitals in Cali. The roads are in really poor condition, so it could take up to two hours to do the journey by car.
The long transportation time can be fatal. We spoke to a woman whose husband died of a heart attack. Health workers had sent a sample of his blood to Cali to identify the source of his illness but, by the time the sample reached the lab, it was already too late.
If they had been able to conduct the tests on a reasonable timeline, they would have been able to identify the source of the man’s suffering. If he had been given proper care earlier, it might have saved his life.
Cali isn’t the only place where this is a problem, there are numerous rural areas in Colombia that are hard to access [Editor’s note: Some areas aren’t even accessible by road, only by boat or helicopter]. For people living in those areas, it can be extremely difficult to access medical care.
It’s not just the time that these journeys take — they are also expensive to undertake. For example, it costs about 1,500 euros a month to maintain the vehicle generally used to cover the seven kilometre distance between Cali and just one of the rural health centres.
We could save both money and time by using drones to carry samples from rural areas to labs in Cali or to transport medicine back to these rural zones. Time means lives in the health sector.
In October 2016, Salamanca and his team used a prototype to carry out an initial series of flights in Cali. The test flights went extremely well and the hospital chain, Red de Salud de Ladera, gave them the money to develop a more sophisticated drone.
We started conducting test flights outside of Cali with our new model in December. Our main concern was to ensure that it could fly in mountainous regions without losing the GPS signal. It wasn’t a given, but it ended up working.
Since then, we’ve successfully completed about 40 flights between Cali and health centres located between five and seven kilometres from the city. It takes a drone about 13 or 14 minutes to cover six or seven kilometres so we save an enormous amount of time.
Drone flights are also much cheaper than using vehicles. According to our estimates, it would cost about 2,000 euros a month to run a drone between a hospital in Cali and eight different rural clinics [Editor’s note: Compared to 1,500 euros a month to run a vehicle between Cali and just one health centre].
During these test flights, our drones carried about twenty tubes containing blood samples. This is just an initial step because we’d also like to transport medicine, stool and urine samples and even organs.
For the time being, the drone that we designed can only carry 2kg worth of cargo and its battery only lasts for 8 kilometres, so we still have work to do.
We are going to train the health workers in the eight different rural centres how to launch our drones. In order for the project to really work, we also need to hire an operator to be based in Siloé Hospital in Cali.
The project started by Nuba Drones and the Red de Salud de Ladera hospital chain could ultimately help improve the standard of care for an estimated 20,000 people living in the area around Cali.
While this is the first time that drones are being used in the health sector in Colombia, similar projects have been launched in Rwanda and several other countries.