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A $40,000 Drone Failed To Lift Off. But There Was A Silver Lining

A nonprofit group is testing this drone to see how fast it could get medications from a town to a remote village in Peru that's six hours away by boat.

If a snake bites you in a remote Amazonian village like Pampa Hermosa, Peru, and the local doctor is out of the right anti-venom, it might be wise to prepare some goodbyes. The nearest resupply, in a town called Contamana, is up to six hours away by riverboat, and you might not last that long. But you might last 35 minutes, the travel time between Pampa Hermosa and Contamana as the drone flies.

A single unmanned aerial vehicle or UAV could dart over the lush canopy with a vial of lifesaving anti-venom, and a nonprofit called WeRobotics is trying to make that a reality. Last September, the company, which aims to use technology for humanitarian purposes, started testing drones that might be able to deliver small emergency supplies, like anti-venom, on that Pampa Hermosa-Contamana run.

If it works, a fleet of flying robots would substantially bolster public health capabilities in a region often with few roads or ready access to fast boats. "Delivering health care in the Peruvian Amazon basin is a major issue," says Dr. Willy Lescano, an epidemiologist at Universidad Peruana Cayetano Heredia. "And it's going to need creative approaches like this."

But the initial testing, in September, which WeRobotics describes in a report released Monday, was off to a rocky start. WeRobotics had acquired a specialized cargo drone that can land and take off vertically, a useful ability in a region where large open spaces are rare. The large drone can carry a roughly 5 pound payload and range as far as 37 miles. It's an impressive robot.

The only problem was that the $40,000 rig wouldn't fly once WeRobotics set it up in Contamana. "It was incredibly depressing. We were like, holy cow, this is a complete disaster," says Patrick Meier, a co-founder of WeRobotics, which is funded mainly by grants and donations.

The team had another drone with it, an old flier strapped together with duct tape and originally designed for mapping and aerial imagery work. "Our Peruvian flying labs team just happened to have this old, beat-up mapping drone," Meier says. It's a lot smaller and can only carry a quarter of the weight the other drone can, but it worked. All they did was yank out the camera, replace it with a vial of anti-venom and launch it off in the afternoon for the Pampa Hermosa-Contamana test flight. It got to Pampa Hermosa in just over half an hour, and it flew back that night.

Meier says it's the best outcome he could have hoped for. The mapping drone costs only about $3,000. "I was like, what were we thinking? What are we doing here bringing a $40,000 drone when this can be done with just a few thousand dollars?" he says. "I think we drank the Kool-Aid, buying the hype and thinking more expensive and sophisticated means more reliable when it's still very early days [for] cargo drones."

Instead of one specialized cargo drone, WeRobotics and its partners could furnish a drone fleet of about a dozen repurposed mapping UAVs. In Meier's view, the 12 little guys are better than one big one. "What we need is a network. You don't want just one. You want to service many towns," Meier says. And if one of the little drones goes down, for maintenance or because a bird or bad weather got it, 11 others are still in the air.

Not even a swarm of drones will be useful in every situation, Lescano says, who is not involved with WeRobotics. The little UAVs can't fly in bad weather, and they would eventually be operating in a rain forest. "The amount of precipitation could be a big challenge for delivery over the rainy season," he says. But: "We have very little alternatives to delivering care [in the Amazon], and this is really innovative and creative. The test is a proof of concept to move to the next stage."

And they are going forward, Meier says. WeRobotics will be running more test flights — at least several dozen, maybe up to 100 — this week in Peru, and then again in May. This time, the team is using an upgraded version of its mapping drone.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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