Robot Surgeons, Medical Drones and Other Advances in Disaster Relief


Between climate change, devastation of certain ecosystems and Mother Nature’s indifferent attitude to human life, natural disasters such as floods, earthquakes and hurricanes are likely to remain with us for the foreseeable future. Technology has a role to play in how these are dealt with, however. Using social media and the internet, volunteer rescuers and donations from around the world can now be mobilized in hours instead of weeks. Refugees can be more easily tracked and united with their families, and various non-governmental aid agencies can stay in touch wherever they are, making it easier to avoid duplication of effort and getting help to where it’s most needed. A number of other technologies are also now being applied to disaster relief, from those involving improved logistics to some intended to actually change weather patterns.




Some of the materials needed for humanitarian efforts are measured in tons: bulk foodstuffs, potable water and large amounts of temporary shelter materials. In other cases, however, a few ounces can make a huge difference: medicines, blood samples and real-time video imagery.


After heavy floods in Kasungu, Malawi, a “drone corridor” has been established covering 5,000km² (2,000 square miles), an area that contains 300 schools and almost 500 clinics and other health centers. Using drones, aid workers need no longer spend much of their time physically travelling routes to see if they are passable, blood samples can be flown in from any location to a laboratory where they can be tested for infectious diseases, and small amounts of medicine can easily be dispatched to where they are needed.


As in the case of many civilian applications for drones, the underlying technology is already available; the creation of the “drone corridor” only means that special permission has been granted to use unmanned flying vehicles for humanitarian purposes.




Often, the major challenge in disaster areas is getting a limited number of qualified volunteers to where they’re needed while transport routes are damaged and vehicles are hard to come by.


Nowadays, highly skilled volunteers such as surgeons no longer even have to travel to be of use in a large-scale emergency. First developed as part of the space program, remotely controlled robots are now safe enough to use to perform surgery from any distance away. The first transatlantic operation was conducted successfully as far back as 2001, and surgeons using such systems claim that it’s not that much more difficult than doing a procedure in their own operating rooms. There are some limitations: reliable, lag-free internet connections have to be established to remote hospitals, while some complications are better handled with an experienced doctor physically present. Where nothing else is available, though, mobile, self-contained robotic surgeons may soon become standard equipment for organizations such as Medecins sans Frontieres. Other applications of telemedicine in disaster areas include making consultations with remotely located epidemiologists and other experts possible, or serving as a training aid.


An End to Hurricanes

Usually, “a force of nature” is used to describe something completely irresistible, but a number of scientists are contemplating engineering on a global scale in order to stop hurricanes and other disasters. While the main emphasis is on reducing global warming, more specific solutions are also being envisioned.


One possible approach is to use the sonic booms of aircraft travelling faster than the speed of sound to disrupt the wind patterns around the eye of a hurricane. Though this seems insanely dangerous to the pilots, there is indeed a chance that it might work and potentially protect hundreds of other lives.


A more practical, entirely preventative method relies on reducing the temperature of the surface across large swathes of ocean. Although this is likely to be expensive, the required investment seems to make sense when the disruption and property damage hurricanes can cause are taken into account. The main idea is that hurricane formation is impossible without large amounts of seawater evaporating. By suspending a large vertical tube in the ocean from a ring floating on the surface, the actions of waves sloshing over the ring’s rim drives warmer surface water into the colder depths, causing surface temperatures to remain below the storm threshold. The concept has been successfully tested in computer models, but is awaiting funding for large-scale field testing.


Fast-Acting Fixes


Those responding to disasters require infrastructure ranging from airstrips to wi-fi, but much of what they need is likely to have been destroyed or disrupted by the time they arrive. Enter inventions such as a wi-fitower providing instant, reliable telecommunications but still fitting in a standard airline suitcase when disassembled, buildings that can be erected in less than a day and afterwards used as sterile medical facilities, and chemical analysis kits costing only about $10 to build (computer not included).


Numerous other inventions are available or in development to provide people with the necessities of water, shelter, medical care and food in the aftermath of an earthquake or other disaster. Many of them will allow aid agencies to do more with less, freeing up personnel by being easy to use and install, or transport by being extremely lightweight as well as modular or collapsible, meaning that they can be delivered to their destination via air or light vehicle instead of requiring a working road or rail network. 


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