Specimen cargo goes UAV route

By Siyabonga Africa, ITWeb junior journalist
Johannesburg, 06 Apr 2009

The National Health Laboratories Service (NHLS) has embarked on a tender process, worth an undisclosed amount, calling for the supply of micro-unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) prototypes. The vehicle will be used to transport sterile specimens during a three month-trial run later this year.

Once airborne, the specimen-transporting micro-UAV would be the first cargo-carrying application of the technology outside of military and surveillance operations.

NHLS head of molecular medicine professor Barry Mendelow says the specimen-carrying micro-UAV would be unique as the cargo it transports is critical, yet would also have no commercial value.

“We have more than 260 labs out there which service 5 000 clinics around the country; some of them situated in remote areas, unable to reach normal modes of communication and transport such as telephone lines and tar roads.”

Mendelow explains that the situation makes it difficult to manage diseases, such as tuberculosis and HIV/Aids, and this is where the idea for cargo-carrying UAVs arose.

“The UAV will carry the specimen from the clinic to one of the labs, and there it will be tested and the results can be sent via SMS.”

The requirements

Mendelow says the tender process is going well so far and the NHLS has received huge interest from the local UAV manufacturing industry. The NHLS has already been working on several prototypes with Denel Dynamics and BFA Systems.

A tender document from the NHLS says the micro-UAV should be able to carry a load of 20 sterile, dried sputum, cervical curettings or blood samples at a time. It should also have a 500g or less payload capacity and have a flight range of 15km with a wind-speed of 20km/h.

The NHLS says there have been many technological advances which have made the use of UAVs desirable in other industries outside the military.

The health service explains that during its trial tests with BFA Systems, it found it could reduce its payload requirements from 500g to 10g, due to improvements in molecular diagnostics which allow specimen testing to be done on small, sterile samples transported as dried paper spots.

Onboard avionics in the micro-UAV should include a pilot with micro electromechanical systems, three-dimensional gyros and accelerometers, GPS-guided navigation capability and onboard telemetric devices capable of conveying real-time position, speed, height and attitude information to standard laptop-equipped ground stations at the flight source (being the clinic) and destination (the laboratory).

The micro-UAS would also have to be complaint with the Civil Aviation Act as stipulated by the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA).

Awaiting approval

The SACAA maintains the use of UAVs in civilian airspace is illegal because they do not comply with civil airworthiness, as prescribed by the International Civil Aviation Organisation's standards and recommended practices and the Civil Aviation Act.

Mendelow says the NHLS is confident the SACAA will certify the use of micro-UAVs for specimen transportation due to fact they will be flying in remote areas. NHLS adds it is in discussions with the SACAA on providing guidelines for the use of the unmanned aircrafts in rural areas.

“We are still awaiting SACAA approval, but since the places the micro-UAVs are going be flying in are remote, I'm sure they will allow the use of the technology in this space.”

The SACAA says it is committed to the development of the UAV manufacturing industry for commercial and non-military use. To that end, it notes, it has established the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Standards Working Group which has been charged with the safe integration of UAVs into civil UAVs.

However, SACAA unmanned aerial systems manager Andy Mamba says: “It [the process] is going to take a long time.”

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