SANBS hope to get blood in the air

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Transport and delivery of items using drones is a highly regulated and often red-taped affair. It is currently illegal to drop anything from a drone but a drone may deliver an item if it is landed. The South African National Blood Service (SANBS) hope to utilize this drone capability for their remote patients.

CEO of the SANBS, Jonathan Louw, presented on how the SANBS plans to deliver blood to the furthest corners of South Africa during the recent  Drones and Digital Aviation Conference at Emperors Palace.

The numbers of people living in rural areas declines by roughly half a percent every year. The latest recording in 2016 revealed that 35% of South Africans, 19.4 million people, are still living in rural areas. The SANBS in response to these numbers is looking to deploy smart fridges and drones to provide blood to remote areas. These smart fridges are blood vending machines placed at a hospital and interfaced with the SANBS. Blood is sent to a lab for tests, the doctor receives the blood type information and a code to collect the blood from the smart fridge. A smart fridge will be tested as a pilot project in 2019/2020. Due to the nature of blood, the particular conditions it needs and the urgency in which it is needed, the SANBS do their own logistics. A problem arises for the SANBS when blood needs to be delivered in remote areas where a hospital with a smart fridge is far away from the clinic or patient in need of blood. A solution to this is a VTOL (vertical takeoff and landing) drone travelling beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) to deliver blood.

The SANBS call this service “Bloodwing” and in partnership with Quantum Systems, they have developed a VTOL drone to take-off and land in confined areas with a refrigerated payload bay for the blood. The drone weighs 13 kilograms and has  a maximum speed of 180 km/h and a flight time of just under 90 minutes. It has a range of 180 km, a wingspan of 3.5 metres and a payload of up to 2 kg. The drone’s loading bay is International Air Transport Association compliant with active temperature control. The drone’s ground station is fashioned out of a shipping container, making it mobile with an office set up inside the container. The container is solar powered with a backup generator and for mission planning, the SANBS is using QBase software.

The SANBS have acquired a small fleet of drones. Ntinga Ntaka Ndini, an isiXhosa proverb meaning “commanding eagles to fly” is the name of the VTOL drone, with their other drones named Botshelo, Qhawe, Sindisa and Sizanani. Currently, the last step for SANBS is to gain South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) approval. “So, we are kind of 95% of the way there, just to get the license to be able to start actually actively flying. The CAA has come and seen us fly a few times and been really happy with the way it’s done,” said Louw.



No date was given as to when the SANBS will gain the relevant approval. However Louw is confident “Bloodwing” will be operational in the near future.