SA National Blood Service puts drones to work

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba, IT in government editor
Johannesburg, 28 Jun 2019
Drone pilot Lebohang Lebogo.
Drone pilot Lebohang Lebogo.

South Africa’s first blood delivery drone will be operated by Lebohang Lebogo, a female medical technician and drone pilot for the South African National Blood Service (SANBS).

In other parts of the world, Rwanda, for example, drones have been used to deliver blood and medical supplies to doctors in rural areas. Meanwhile, last month, US surgeons successfully received a donor kidney delivered by a drone.

Although South Africa has seen drone popularity increase in recent years, drone use has been mainly focused on agriculture and construction, as well as in hobby pursuits.

Last month, the SANBS, together with the Western Cape Blood Service, sought to change this, introducing a drone blood delivery service that sees SA join its African counterparts.

Dubbed Tron, the drone is capable of vertical take-off and landing just like a helicopter. It has a range of over 100km and can travel up to 180km per hour, but can also travel as slowly as 60km per hour if necessary, according to the SANBS.

Furthermore, the drone’s cargo compartment is able to securely accommodate a fragile load of up to 2kg and actively cool it.

According to SANBS, Tron will complement its existing logistics infrastructure.

“We believe this is an innovative step in the history of blood transfusion. SANBS is determined to improve rapid access to life-saving blood products in rural areas through the use of drone technology,” says CEO Jonathan Louw.

“Patients can receive emergency 'O negative' blood from one of our blood banks via drone. The same drone can then take that patient’s blood sample to the blood bank for comprehensive cross-matching, and then safely and rapidly deliver compatible blood back to the patient.”

Girl power

Speaking to Power FM yesterday, Lebogo said the drone knows where to go because of its GPS system and has a ground station to set up its way point.

Lebogo noted the drone flies autonomously and will go to a specific area as instructed, adding that she can take control of the flying machine should the need arise.

“My job is to make sure the air speed is fine, and because we are delivering blood, I must ensure the cooling system is maintained at all times,” she told the talk radio station.

The 29-year-old joined the non-profit blood services organisation in 2011 as a donor attendant, and as a way to make extra money to fund her flying career.

“I have my drone pilot licence, but I’m still working towards getting my private pilot licence.”

Putting drones to work

Some South African local government departments have been quick to recognise the advantages of putting drones to work.

Last year, the Department of Infrastructure Development (DID) revealed it is using five unmanned drones to monitor its infrastructure projects across Gauteng’s city region development corridors.

According to the DID, the drones help it check whether construction on site is in accordance with architectural designs. The department has found the drones to be a helpful tool in ensuring every cent is accounted for, which it believes contributes to the fight against corruption.

The DID is able to monitor building projects, such as new schools, clinics, libraries and hospitals.

"Through the work we are doing, we are trying to build a department that can sustain service delivery,” said Gauteng infrastructure development MEC Jacob Mamabolo at the time.

"We have one drone per region because since the launch, we have taken the position that drones can make infrastructure delivery efficient and effective."

In farming, Aerobotics, a Cape Town-based start-up, uses drones, satellites and artificial intelligence to help farmers optimise crop performance and reduce input costs.

It provides farmers with data to track crop health, growth and moisture levels, down to individual plants, and to action this data through variable-rate fertiliser maps and yield estimates.

Last year, the farming start-up partnered with The Co-op to help 1 300 Eastern Cape farms mitigate damage to their crops from pests and diseases.