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Undergraduate research team develops [medical drone] UAV despite pandemic restrictions

In spite of research shutdowns due to COVID and subsequent laboratory restrictions, a team of University of Michigan aerospace undergraduate students, under the direction of Department Chair Tony Waas, and Dr. Tim Smith, have designed, built, and are currently testing a prototype UAV for use delivering essential medical supplies to remote communities in Ghana.

One year ago, the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic shut down research and laboratory work University wide. One casualty of the research shutdown was the Medical Drone UAV Project (MDUAV), an undergraduate research project designing a prototype vertical takeoff and landing drone to deliver medical supplies to remote communities in Ghana. The goal of the project is delivery of healthcare to rural communities in Africa.

The vehicle for delivery, an autonomous drone, initially conceived as a project in the U-M Aerospace 405 laboratory class instructed by Dr. Smith, the MDAUV drone went through several iterations prior to the research shutdown. The first design was a tail sitter – a kind of flying wing with sections that rotate, which was later abandoned for a simpler tilt-rotor design. To test the computer program used to control the craft in vertical flight, a 405 laboratory team built a quadcopter, which was tested in the M-Air outdoor robotics lab. Beginning in Winter 2020, the team began design work on the full size prototype with a 12-foot wingspan and the capability of lifting a 10 kg payload. Unfortunately, the project was suspended before construction of the drone could begin.

Over Summer 2020, the 405 team transitioned the project to a new team of students who would take over as a dedicated extra-curricular design team, rather than as part of a laboratory class. This group drew from experience on other design teams, as well as lessons and design techniques learned in the classroom, to improve and complete the drone design in the Fall of 2021. Despite the continued restrictions on laboratory access due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the team began construction of the prototype in Winter 2021 and is now testing the partially-complete prototype (pictured below).

Partially-complete UAV prototype
Partially-complete UAV prototype

The team will continue work after the semester ends and hopes to conduct a full flight test in May. Work will continue over the summer when a new MDUAV team will take over to continue to optimize the design and upgrade the prototype.

An unmanned aircraft capable of vertical takeoff and landing is specifically well suited for delivering medical supplies to communities without the infrastructure for ground delivery or traditional aircraft. Despite its size, the MDUAV drone will be able to land in a space the size of a small parking lot rather than requiring a large runway. Because the drone can fly to a destination autonomously, a fleet of drones can be operated by a small team and a single central location can serve a wide area. 

The effort to develop a prototype drone is part of a larger project led by Aerospace Department Chair Tony Waas. Dr. Waas, in collaboration with engineers at Michigan (Dr. Tim Smith, Dr. Herbert Winful and Dr. Elijah Kannatey-Asibu) and medical personnel at Michigan Medicine (Dr. Grace Waas, Daisy Okpa) and the Kumasi University of Science and Technology in Ghana (Dr. Anthony Agyemeng, Dr. Easmon Otpuri), is working to solve the problem of lack of access to healthcare and medicine in remote areas worldwide. Once the prototype drone has been completed and thoroughly tested, a fleet of vehicles operating from hubs in major cities will deliver medical supplies to communities throughout Ghana. As the drones deliver the medical supplies – which include medicine, blood, and vaccines – the equally essential medical expertise can be provided through local training programs and telemedicine.


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