Unmanned ‘quadcopters’ could deliver medicine in Bhutan

Prime Minister hopes they will play radical role in his small and mountainous country

Asia Correspondent

They rose, they hovered and then they were gone. Tshering Tobgay, Prime Minister of the Himalayan nation of Bhutan, stood and watched the trial of unmanned aerial vehicles that he hopes could play a radical role in providing healthcare services in his small and mountainous country.

Standing in the grounds of the Jigme Dorji Wangchuck National Referral Hospital in Thimpu, the country’s main medical centre, Mr Tobgay watched as several, tiny unmanned “quadcopters” were dispatched on test flights.

“We discussed how quadcopters can take tele-medicine in Bhutan to the next level by using the unmanned devices to deliver vital medicine,” Mr Tobgay later said in a message posted on social media. “The devices could also pick up samples - blood, urine and others - from basic healthcare units to be analysed.”

The Buddhist Himalayan nation of Bhutan, squeezed in between India and China, is typically seen in the West as an idyllic, untouched Shangri-La. Reports about the national of 700,000 people, invariably mention a  concept promoted by the country’s former monarch, that gross national happiness, should be considered as important as gross domestic product.

But for all its dramatic, picturesque landscapes and clear mountain air, Bhutan remains an essentially poor country. GDP per capita stands at $2,400, higher than in India and Nepal, but less than Sri Lanka and China.

A major challenge for the country, which became a democracy in 2008 and where a ban on televisions was only lifted in 1999, is its steep, mountainous terrain, which makes the building of roads expensive and difficult. 

This lack of infrastructure and the remote location of many of its communities, even today, creates problems not only for farmers and the country’s rapidly increasing tourism industry, but also in providing services such as healthcare.

In this field, Bhutan is also confronting a problem with capacity. The country has just 0.3 doctors for 1,000 people. It has 31 hospitals, 178 basic healthcare units and around 650 even more primitive clinics located in distant villages and communities.

To tackle this problem, Bhutan has, in liaison with the World Health Organisation (WHO), been looking at the potential for tele-medicine – using mobiles and the internet to allow doctors at the larger hospitals carry out check-ups remotely and for medical records and x-rays to be emailed back to patients.

Dr Pem Namgyal, a regional official with the WHO, said Mr Tobgay was personally interested in the potential for using technology to tackle his country’s challenges. Earlier this year, the PM’s office contacted the WHO and asked about the possibility of using drones, or unmanned vehicles, in a humanitarian capacity.

“He wanted to expand the role of tele-medicine,” said Mr Namgyal, who is based in Delhi, India. “He said we should look to see if there were unmanned vehicles that could deliver emergency supplies or pick up a blood sample from a remote area. He requested the WHO support.”

The company contacted by Mr Namgyal, after some research, was Matternet, a California-based technology start-up company that claims it is creating the “next paradigm for transportation” using a network of unmanned aerial vehicles.

The company, whose backers include Fadi Ghandour, the founder of the Aramex logistics company and who also heads a technology investment fund, has previously conducted trials of its unmanned vehicles in Haiti and the neighbouring Dominican Republic. It says its primary focus is how the 4lb vehicles could be used in a healthcare environment.

“We want to solve transportation problems in places where are no roads or places where roads are impassable – Haiti, Bhutan, New York or Los Angeles,” Paola Santana, the firm’s chief regulatory officer, said from Palo Alto

She said company can not only supply a fleet of environmentally-friendly vehicles, but would also provide platforms for them to take off and land from. The software it produces would oversee the vehicles’ movements and forward such information to the relevant air traffic control authorities. The vehicles cost between £1,100 – £3,000.

In Bhutan, Matternet is looking at linking remote clinics with larger hospitals, transferring medicine and blood samples. “We could move critical healthcare supplies,” she said.

The initial feedback from Bhutan, where Matternet’s Greek CEO Andreas Raptopoulos showcased the UAVs, appears to have positive. One of the test flights dispatched a quadcopter from Thimpu to a local health centre in Chamgang, about eight miles from the capital.

Another trial saw a quadcopter fly to a shimmering, 50m statue of a golden Buddha, located at the Kuenselphodrang Nature Park and which overlooks the Thimpu valley. Photographs showed hospital staff and young children alike seemingly fascinated by the quadcopters.

The government declined to answer questions from The Independent about the trials, saying they were only at a preliminary stage. An official in the Prime Minster’s office, Nim Tshering, said the government was “exploring the possibilities”.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Bourgogne wine maker Laboure-Roi vice president Thibault Garin (L) offers the company's 2013 Beaujolais Nouveau wine to the guest in the wine spa at the Hakone Yunessun spa resort facilities in Hakone town, Kanagawa prefecture, some 100-kilometre west of Tokyo
Oscar Pistorius is led out of court in Pretoria. Pistorius received a five-year prison sentence for culpable homicide by judge Thokozile Masipais for the killing of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp
voicesThokozile Masipa simply had no choice but to jail the athlete
Arts and Entertainment
James Blunt's debut album Back to Bedlam shot him to fame in 2004

Singer says the track was 'force-fed down people's throats'

Life and Style
The Tinder app has around 10 million users worldwide

techThe original free dating app will remain the same, developers say

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

IT Project Manager

Competitive: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Chelmsford a...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

IT Manager

£40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

Day In a Page

Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album