Feasibility study for deploying Drones in Bhutan for delivering medical supplies

Prime Minister of Bhutan watch the drone take off from JDWNRH

Telemedicine service was established in Bhutan in 2000. Since then the benefits of telemedicine service could not be realized as required due to some technical challenges and user acceptability. In April 2014, His Excellency the Prime Minister of Bhutan had an opportunity to discuss on ways to improve telemedicine in Bhutan during the official familiarization visit of Honorable Regional Director of WHO SEARO, Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh. His Excellency the Prime Minister of Bhutan expressed his interest to see telemedicine go beyond digital image/information transmission and visual consultation for diagnosis purposes to that of actual medical services. One of the ways he pointed out was the use of cutting-edge technologies such as drones to deliver urgent medical supplies, which would not only compliment telemedicine services but also reach out medical services to the remotest settlements.

Accordingly, the MATTERNET Team based in California, USA upon WHO’s invitation visited Bhutan from 28th July to 5th August 2014 to carry out the first phase of the project to study the feasibility of deploying drones for health services. The team comprised of:

1. Mr Andreas Raptopoulos, Chief Executive Officer
2. Mr Kendell Larsen, Engineer
3. Mr Alexander Johan Harmsen, Software Engineer
4. Miss Daniella D Grand, Student

Purpose of Visit
To study the feasibility of deploying drones to reach medical supplies, blood samples including reagents and during emergencies in Bhutan.

Feasibility Study

The MATTERNET team visited the country to do feasibility study from 28th July to 5th August 2014. The aim of study was to conduct flight tests of the drone involving parameters of high altitude, winds, rain and mountains. The National Counterpart, Mr Tashi, Program Officer, Emergency Services Program, Department of Medical services represented the Ministry of Health and Mr Kinley Dorji, National Professional Officer, WHO country office representing WHO accompanied the team to conduct the study. The study was conducted in the following areas:

1. Semtokha, Thimphu at altitude of 2300 mtrs
2. Chamgang BHU, Thimphu at altitude of 2820 mtrs
3. Yangchen Gatshel Primary School, Chamgang, Thimphu at altitude of 2860mtrs
4. Buddha site, Thimphu at altitude of 2670 mtrs
5. Bajo, Wangdue District at altitude of 1280 mtrs
6. Phobjikha, Wangdue District at altitude of 3200 mtrs

Feasibility Study Program Detail

Day 1 – 28th July 2014
The MATTERNET team arrived at 10:30 am at Paro International airport and received by the Ministry of Health Counterpart, Mr Tashi Duba, Program Officer, Emergency Services Program of Department of Medical Services. The team leaves for Thimphu.

At 2:00 pm, the team met with the Honorable Prime Minister of Bhutan and discussed about their organization and on the drone flight test programs. They also discussed with the Honorable Prime Minister about their performance and achievements.

In the evening at 3:30 pm, the team also met with the Honorable Health Minister and officials of the Ministry of Health and Jigme Dorji Wangchuck National Referral hospital. They discussed in length about the organization, product and services, prices of the products, viability of the product and the flight test programs.

As instructed by the honorable Health Minister, the team showcased the drone flight tests at Buddha site, where it was successfully launched in the air for about an hour. The honorable Health Minister, Honorable Secretary, Director General of department of medical services, WHO representative and other officials were present.

Day 2 – 29th July 2014
In the morning at 9:00 am, the team visited Chamgang, Thimphu to conduct drone test flight at Yangchen Gatshel Primary School football ground. The test flights for atltitude, winds and rains were conducted successfully throughout the day.

In the evening at 4:30 pm, the team moved from Chamgang to Olarong Chu site and conducted test flight to Buddha site. The test flight was conducted successfully. The drone took about 12 minutes to reach the site.

In the evening, the honorable Health Minister hosted a dinner on behalf of the Ministry of Health to the team.

Day 3 – 30th July 2014
At 9:00 am, a meeting was conducted among Ministry of Health, WHO and the team at WHO office to review and redesign the test flight program.

At 10:30 am, the team visited Loseling Primary School, Changjiji to do test flight there to Buddha site. Later, the team went to Chamgang BHU for the test flight. The team conducted test flight at the BHU at an altitude of 2820 meters air-borne to and fro within the vicinity of the BHU. The test was also done in the moderate rainfall in which the test was successful. Attempts were made to fly from Semtokha to Chamgang BHU, but drone failed due to technical problems.

Day 4 – 31st July 2014
The team was supposed to travel to Phobjikha, but could not as they had to maintain the drone. Few test flights from Semtokha to Chamgang BHU were conducted, but failed. The team rectified and repaired the drone successfully. Later test flights were conducted from Semtokha to Chamgang BHU with the one team at Chamgang BHU and the other launch team at Semtokha.

Day 5 – 1st August 2014:
At 8:30 am, the team travelled to Phobjikha. One its way, the team conducted some test flights at Bajo Hospital and in the valley for 2 hours. The test flights were successfully conducted at an altitude of 1200 meters.

At 3:45 pm, the team arrived at Phobjikha. The team conducted a test flights in the Phobjikha valley until late evening. The test flight was successfully conducted at the altitude of 3200 meters crossing 15 kilometers and in the moderate to heavy winds.

Day 6 – 2nd August 2014:
In the morning, the team conducted the test flights in the same valley. The test flights were successfully conducted at altitude of 3200 meters covering 21 kilometers.

In the afternoon, the test flights were done at Phobjikha BHU. From there the test flight was done to the other side of the valley and back successfully.

In the evening, the team drove back to Thimphu.

Day 7 – 3rd August 2014
The team visited Paro Taktshang (Tiger nest temple) for a leisure and site seeing. The team was led and guided by Mr Tashi Duba, Program Officer, Emergency Medical Services program of Department of Medical Services.

Day 8 – 4th August 2014
at 9:00 am, the flight tests were conducted at Jigme Dorji Wangchuck National Referral hospital and from there to Buddha site in preparation for a launch of pilot test flights with the Honorable Prime Minister of Bhutan.

At 12:45 pm, the first pilot test flight was auto launched by Honorable Prime Minister from hospital to Buddha site. The same flight was received back auto.

Few minutes later, the second pilot test was launched by honorable Prime Minister from hospital to Chamgang BHU. The drone landed at Chamgang BHU after 12 minutes from the hospital launch site. The drone landing at BHU was reported by Mr Tashi Duba through a mobile phone call to the team and to the honorable Prime Minister. Government officials from various agencies, individuals and media personnel were present to witness the pilot test flights.

At 3:00 pm, the team debriefed to the Ministry of Health officials chaired by the honorable Health Minister about the success of the feasibility of drone test flights. In the meeting, various topics were discussed covering technical issues such as drone operation, internet connectivity, etc to price of the drones and weather conditions to mountain ranges that pose as a challenge to the drone flights.

The Honorable Health Minister recommended on the next phase of test flights that would cover long range, satellite phone connections and crossing mountains.

In the evening, the WHO country office hosted a dinner to the team and the Ministry officials.