Nitpicking: The Logistics of Humanitarian Dronefare

Drones, as popular narrative would have it, are a cure-all for the logistically complicated humanitarian conundrums that have eclipsed us.

Violent atrocity beyond the realm of journalist access? Bear witness via aerial surveillance. Vaccine delivery in mountainous village with no cold chain? Propel freeze-packed parcels over the peaks. Difficulty obtaining specific parts for medical device repair in a remote region of the world? Drop off a 3D printer and let the Internet of Things spring forth from the empty vale.

To preface, I am optimistic about the potential drone use holds for all of the above purposes. But I am skeptical of whether entrepreneurs and hobbyists presently operating in this space are capable of achieving these goals, and whether interested funders are creating a space governed by rules and incentives that will guide the actors towards success – and, indeed, how success might be defined. That said, I’d like to present some challenges that as far I know have not yet been confronted in hopes of prompting a more nuanced conversation about the realities of humanitarian drone use. Continue reading “Nitpicking: The Logistics of Humanitarian Dronefare”

Nitpicking: The Logistics of Humanitarian Dronefare

In the midst of midterms…

…I’d like to take a quick break, because I just want world to know what incredibly cool bioMEMS research is being done on point-of-care diagnostics. Let’s start with pretty colors, courtesy of the Folch lab at the University of Washington:

This is a brief visual example of the things you can do when working with micro-scale volumes of fluid. Some of the standard rules of working with liquids disappear for a bit, allowing intermolecular forces to do their thing and largely subverting turbulent flow. Why on earth would you want to work with such small volumes of liquid, and how are they useful in medicine? Part of it involves (as always) cost reduction.

Most blood diagnostic tests involve seeking out a protein and tagging it to check out under a microscope. This is often done using animal antibodies which, as far as I gathered from that one time someone spilled them in lab, cost roughly a billion dollars to purify. When you can gather enough relevant information using a small amount of reagent, you’ve got a more affordable diagnostic test – and in all likelihood, one that doesn’t take up much room.

Here’s the dream: lab-on-a-chip. Low-cost tests the size of a credit card, with an inlet for blood or saliva, blister packs for the required reagents, and some sort of visual indicator for results: PERFECT for rural or low-resource settings and at-home tests. Practical problems include heat protection and storage (as with vaccines); current research problems include isolating and amplifying desired diagnostic indicators from the low concentrations in which they are typically present in the bodily fluid of interest.

But for each time someone solves the concentration problem, the potential payoff is huge. There’s a tremendous difference between simply dropping blood on a chip and spending days – and personnel and glassware, neither of which might be available – on sample preparation.

And that’s why I go to my 9 am class.

In the midst of midterms…