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Drones in healthcare

- By Kemantha Govender

Emeritus Professor Barry Mendelow delivered the AJ Orenstein Memorial Lecture.

Drones have received much attention recently as offensive weapons of warfare but it could just be the thing to help save lives of people in remote areas around the country, says Wits Emeritus Professor Barry Mendelow.

Speaking at the AJ Orenstein Memorial lecture on 1 October 2015, Mendelow focused on his experience in the early development and successful field testing of drones for the transportation of medical cargoes between rural clinics and urban centres. 

Mendelow spoke about development of e-Juba, a preliminary proof of concept unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) designed to facilitate the transportation of microbiological test samples from remote rural clinics to the National Health Laboratory Service Laboratories (NHLS).

Mendelow, an advocate for using drones for medical purposes, has been researching this field for almost a decade. He partnered with arms manufacturer, Denel and other researchers in this area.

He said that research indicated that the payload is specified to accommodate medical diagnostic samples, but could also be applicable to carrying urgently required medications such as rabies immune globulin, anti-snakebite serum or packed red cells.

“The current e-Juba airframe could be modified to carry a maximum of two units, whose weight would not exceed the payload design specification.”


He used tuberculosis (TB) to make a compelling argument for drone usage as the country is said to have the highest incidence of TB annually.

Mendelow and his team collaborated with a Somerset West entrepreneur, Jaco Davel, to modify a smaller, cheaper UAV that could be launched by hand and can land almost anywhere.

In 2009, the NHLS approached S-Plane Automation to create a small, inexpensive unmanned aircraft system to transport sterile medical samples between more than 1 500 rural clinics and laboratories.

“The resulting system, named Nightingale, is an incredibly reliable aircraft, capable of enduring extreme punishment in remote parts of South Africa. Nightingale was a resounding success. It completed a two-month-equivalent operational field trial between a clinic and a laboratory on the West Coast of South Africa with a  100% success rate under extreme environmental conditions,” said Mendelow.

He added that it is essential to draw from local communities and incorporate people into a youth development plan with a broader view of employment opportunities as pilots, manufacturers and in-service and maintenance technicians. He added that drone usage in medicine could provide a platform for rural teaching and learning opportunities in science, engineering and technology.

With legislation being prepared on drone usage in South Africa, Mendelow said it is expected that medical activity through our airspace will be on the increase.