Breakthrough drones deliver breast milk in rural Uruguay
Until three months ago, nurse Leopoldina Castelli used to send bottles of breast milk to nourish babies in the remote areas of Tacuarembó, in northern Uruguay, by way of ambulances or military trucks. That is, if the vehicles were available and the roads were passable, which wasn’t always the case. Now, five days per week, she stands by a runway at the hospital, located in Tacuarembó’s capital, watching a drone take off and disappear from view, carrying the milk to clinics that serve the babies’ families.
The drones can fly as far as 62 miles. Long distances and rough roads are no obstacles. The babies, whose mothers struggle to produce sufficient milk and cannot afford formula, now receive ample supplies for healthy growth. “Today we provided nourishment to a significantly larger number of children, and this is something that deeply moves me,” Castelli says.
About two decades ago, the Tacuarembó hospital established its own milk bank, supported by donations from mothers across Tacuarembó. Over the years, the bank has provided milk to infants immediately after birth. It's helped drive a “significant and sustained” decrease in infant mortality, says the hospital director, Ciro Ferreira.
But these children need breast milk throughout their first six months, if not longer, to prevent malnutrition and other illnesses that are prevalent in rural Tacuarembó. Ground transport isn't quick or reliable enough to meet this goal. It can take several hours, during which the milk may spoil due to a lack of refrigeration.
The battery-powered drones have been the difference-maker. The project to develop them, financed by the UNICEF Innovation Fund, is the first of its kind in Latin America. To Castelli, it's nothing short of a revolution. Tacuarembó Hospital, along with three rural clinics in the most impoverished part of Uruguay, are its leaders.
"This marks the first occasion when the public health system has been directly impacted [by our technology]," says Sebastián Macías, the CEO and co-founder of Cielum, an engineer at the University Republic, which collaborated on the technology with a Uruguayan company called Cielum and a Swiss company, Rigitech.
The drone can achieve a top speed of up to 68 miles per hour, is capable of flying in light rain, and can withstand winds of up to 30 miles per hour at a maximum altitude of 120 meters.
"We have succeeded in embracing the mothers from rural areas who were previously slipping through the cracks of the system," says Ferreira, the hospital director. He envisions an expansion of the service so it can improve health for children in other rural areas.
Nurses load the drone for breast milk delivery.
Sebastián Macías - Cielum
The star aircraft
The drone, which costs approximately $70,000, was specifically designed for the transportation of biological materials. Constructed from carbon fiber, it's three meters wide, two meters long and weighs 42 pounds when fully loaded. Additionally, it is equipped with a ballistic parachute to ensure a safe descent in case the technology fails in midair. Furthermore, it can achieve a top speed of 68 miles per hour, fly in light rain, and withstand winds of 30 miles per hour at a height of 120 meters.
Inside, the drones feature three refrigerated compartments that maintain a stable temperature and adhere to the United Nations’ standards for transporting perishable products. These compartments accommodate four gallons or 6.5 pounds of cargo. According to Macías, that's more than sufficient to carry a week’s worth of milk for one infant on just two flights, or 3.3 pounds of blood samples collected in a rural clinic.
“From an energy perspective, it serves as an efficient mode of transportation and helps reduce the carbon emissions associated with using an ambulance,” said Macías. Plus, the ambulance can remain available in the town.
Macías, who has led software development for the drone, and three other technicians have been trained to operate it. They ensure that the drone stays on course, monitor weather conditions and implement emergency changes when needed. The software displays the in-flight positions of the drones in relation to other aircraft. All agricultural planes in the region receive notification about the drone's flight path, departure and arrival times, and current location.
The future: doubling the drone's reach
Forty-five days after its inaugural flight, the drone is now making five flights per week. It serves two routes: 34 miles to Curtina and 31 miles to Tambores. The drone reaches Curtina in 50 minutes while ambulances take double that time, partly due to the subpar road conditions. Pueblo Ansina, located 40 miles from the state capital, will soon be introduced as the third destination.
Overall, the drone’s schedule is expected to become much busier, with plans to accomplish 20 weekly flights by the end of October and over 30 in 2024. Given the drone’s speed, Macías is contemplating using it to transport cancer medications as well.
“When it comes to using drones to save lives, for us, the sky is not the limit," says Ciro Ferreira, Tacuarembó hospital director.
In future trips to clinics in San Gregorio de Polanco and Caraguatá, the drone will be pushed to the limit. At these locations, a battery change will be necessary, but it's worth it. The route will cover up to 10 rural Tacuarembó clinics plus one hospital outside Tacuarembó, in Rivera, close to the border with Brazil. Currently, because of a shortage of ambulances, the delivery of pasteurized breast milk to Rivera only occurs every 15 days.
“The expansion to Rivera will include 100,000 more inhabitants, doubling the healthcare reach,” said Ferreira, the director of the Tacuarembó Hospital. In itself, Ferreira's hospital serves the medical needs of 500,000 people as one of the largest in Uruguay's interior.
Alejandro Del Estal, an aeronautical engineer at Rigitech, traveled from Europe to Tacuarembó to oversee the construction of the vertiports – the defined areas that can support drones’ take-off and landing – and the first flights. He pointed out that once the flight network between hospitals and rural polyclinics is complete in Uruguay, it will rank among the five most extensive drone routes in the world for any activity, including healthcare and commercial uses.
Cielum is already working on the long-term sustainability of the project. The aim is to have more drones operating in other rural regions in the western and northern parts of the country. The company has received inquiries from Argentina and Colombia, but, as Macías pointed out, they are exercising caution when making commitments. Expansion will depend on the development of each country’s regulations for airspace use.
For Ferreira, the advantages in Uruguay are evident: "This approach enables us to bridge the geographical gap, enhance healthcare accessibility, and reduce the time required for diagnosing and treating rural inhabitants, all without the necessity of them traveling to the hospital,” he says. "When it comes to using drones to save lives, for us, the sky is not the limit."
When I greeted Rodney Gorham, age 63, in an online chat session, he replied within seconds: “My pleasure.”
“Are you moving parts of your body as you type?” I asked.
This time, his response came about five minutes later: “I position the cursor with the eye tracking and select the same with moving my ankles.” Gorham, a former sales representative from Melbourne, Australia, living with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a rare form of Lou Gehrig’s disease that impairs the brain’s nerve cells and the spinal cord, limiting the ability to move. ALS essentially “locks” a person inside their own body. Gorham is conversing with me by typing with his mind only–no fingers in between his brain and his computer.
The brain-computer interface enabling this feat is called the Stentrode. It's the brainchild of Synchron, a company backed by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates. After Gorham’s neurologist recommended that he try it, he became one of the first volunteers to have an 8mm stent, laced with small electrodes, implanted into his jugular vein and guided by a surgeon into a blood vessel near the part of his brain that controls movement.
After arriving at their destination, these tiny sensors can detect neural activity. They relay these messages through a small receiver implanted under the skin to a computer, which then translates the information into words. This minimally invasive surgery takes a day and is painless, according to Gorham. Recovery time is typically short, about two days.
When a paralyzed patient thinks about trying to move their arms or legs, the motor cortex will fire patterns that are specific to the patient’s thoughts.
When a paralyzed patient such as Gorham thinks about trying to move their arms or legs, the motor cortex will fire patterns that are specific to the patient’s thoughts. This pattern is detected by the Stentrode and relayed to a computer that learns to associate this pattern with the patient’s physical movements. The computer recognizes thoughts about kicking, making a fist and other movements as signals for clicking a mouse or pushing certain letters on a keyboard. An additional eye-tracking device controls the movement of the computer cursor.
The process works on a letter by letter basis. That’s why longer and more nuanced responses often involve some trial and error. “I have been using this for about two years, and I enjoy the sessions,” Gorham typed during our chat session. Zafar Faraz, field clinical engineer at Synchron, sat next to Gorham, providing help when required. Gorham had suffered without internet access, but now he looks forward to surfing the web and playing video games.
Gorham, age 63, has been enjoying Stentrode sessions for about two years.
The BCI revolution
In the summer of 2021, Synchron became the first company to receive the FDA’s Investigational Device Exemption, which allows research trials on the Stentrode in human patients. This past summer, the company, together with scientists from Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and the Neurology and Neurosurgery Department at Utrecht University, published a paper offering a framework for how to develop BCIs for patients with severe paralysis – those who can't use their upper limbs to type or use digital devices.
Three months ago, Synchron announced the enrollment of six patients in a study called COMMAND based in the U.S. The company will seek approval next year from the FDA to make the Stentrode available for sale commercially. Meanwhile, other companies are making progress in the field of BCIs. In August, Neuralink announced a $280 million financing round, the biggest fundraiser yet in the field. Last December, Synchron announced a $75 million financing round. “One thing I can promise you, in five years from now, we’re not going to be where we are today. We're going to be in a very different place,” says Elad I. Levy, professor of neurosurgery and radiology at State University of New York in Buffalo.
The risk of hacking exists, always. Cybercriminals, for example, might steal sensitive personal data for financial reasons, blackmailing, or to spread malware to other connected devices while extremist groups could potentially hack BCIs to manipulate individuals into supporting their causes or carrying out actions on their behalf.
“The prospect of bestowing individuals with paralysis a renewed avenue for communication and motor functionality is a step forward in neurotech,” says Hayley Nelson, a neuroscientist and founder of The Academy of Cognitive and Behavioral Neuroscience. “It is an exciting breakthrough in a world of devastating, scary diseases,” says Neil McArthur, a professor of philosophy and director of the Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics at the University of Manitoba. “To connect with the world when you are trapped inside your body is incredible.”
While the benefits for the paraplegic community are promising, the Stentrode’s long-term effectiveness and overall impact needs more research on safety. “Potential risks like inflammation, damage to neural tissue, or unexpected shifts in synaptic transmission due to the implant warrant thorough exploration,” Nelson says.
There are also concens about data privacy concerns and the policies of companies to safeguard information processed through BCIs. “Often, Big Tech is ahead of the regulators because the latter didn’t envisage such a turn of events...and companies take advantage of the lack of legal framework to push forward,” McArthur says. Hacking is another risk. Cybercriminals could steal sensitive personal data for financial reasons, blackmailing, or to spread malware to other connected devices. Extremist groups could potentially hack BCIs to manipulate individuals into supporting their causes or carrying out actions on their behalf.
“We have to protect patient identity, patient safety and patient integrity,” Levy says. “In the same way that we protect our phones or computers from hackers, we have to stay ahead with anti-hacking software.” Even so, Levy thinks the anticipated benefits for the quadriplegic community outweigh the potential risks. “We are on the precipice of an amazing technology. In the future, we would be able to connect patients to peripheral devices that enhance their quality of life.”
In the near future, the Stentrode could enable patients to use the Stentrode to activate their wheelchairs, iPods or voice modulators. Synchron's focus is on using its BCI to help patients with significant mobility restrictions—not to enhance the lives of healthy people without any illnesses. Levy says we are not prepared for the implications of endowing people with superpowers.
I wondered what Gorham thought about that. “Pardon my question, but do you feel like you have sort of transcended human nature, being the first in a big line of cybernetic people doing marvelous things with their mind only?” was my last question to Gorham.
A slight smile formed on his lips. In less than a minute, he typed: “I do a little.”
A new competition by the XPRIZE Foundation is offering $101 million to researchers who discover therapies that give a boost to people aged 65-80 so their bodies perform more like when they were middle-aged.
For today’s podcast episode, I talked with Dr. Peter Diamandis, XPRIZE’s founder and executive chairman. Under Peter’s leadership, XPRIZE has launched 27 previous competitions with over $300 million in prize purses. The latest contest aims to enhance healthspan, or the period of life when older people can play with their grandkids without any restriction, disability or disease. Such breakthroughs could help prevent chronic diseases that are closely linked to aging. These illnesses are costly to manage and threaten to overwhelm the healthcare system, as the number of Americans over age 65 is rising fast.
In this competition, called XPRIZE Healthspan, multiple awards are available, depending on what’s achieved, with support from the nonprofit Hevolution Foundation and Chip Wilson, the founder of Lululemon and nonprofit SOLVE FSHD. The biggest prize, $81 million, is for improvements in cognition, muscle and immunity by 20 years. An improvement of 15 years will net $71 million, and 10 years will net $61 million.
In our conversation for this episode, Peter talks about his plans for XPRIZE Healthspan and why exponential technologies make the current era - even with all of its challenges - the most exciting time in human history. We discuss the best mental outlook that supports a person in becoming truly innovative, as well as the downsides of too much risk aversion. We talk about how to overcome the negativity bias in ourselves and in mainstream media, how Peter has shifted his own mindset to become more positive over the years, how to inspire a culture of innovation, Peter’s personal recommendations for lifestyle strategies to live longer and healthier, the innovations we can expect in various fields by 2030, the future of education and the importance of democratizing tech and innovation.
In addition to Peter’s pioneering leadership of XPRIZE, he is also the Executive Founder of Singularity University. In 2014, he was named by Fortune as one of the “World’s 50 Greatest Leaders.” As an entrepreneur, he’s started over 25 companies in the areas of health-tech, space, venture capital and education. He’s Co-founder and Vice-Chairman of two public companies, Celularity and Vaxxinity, plus being Co-founder & Chairman of Fountain Life, a fully-integrated platform delivering predictive, preventative, personalized and data-driven health. He also serves as Co-founder of BOLD Capital Partners, a venture fund with a half-billion dollars under management being invested in exponential technologies and longevity companies. Peter is a New York Times Bestselling author of four books, noted during our conversation and in the show notes of this episode. He has degrees in molecular genetics and aerospace engineering from MIT and holds an M.D. from Harvard Medical School.
- Peter Diamandis bio
- New XPRIZE Healthspan
- Peter Diamandis books
- Longevity Insider newsletter – AI identifies the news
- Peter Diamandis Longevity Handbook
- Hevolution funding for longevity
XPRIZE Founder Peter Diamandis speaks with Mehmoud Khan, CEO of Hevolution Foundation, at the launch of XPRIZE Healthspan.