SMAV platform and control electronics. Â© 2008 http://lis.epfl.ch
NewScientist reports on a project by the South African National Health Laboratory Service to use robotic planes as the artificial equivalent to carrier pigeons. The small autonomous UAVs could carry medical samples including blood or sputum for testing, or even deliver units of blood for transfusions and drop snake antivenom to stricken victims. The robot planes are faster than conventional couriers and may be the only option to reach remote clinics frequently inaccessible by roads after heavy rains.
Interestingly the Laboratory of Intelligent Systems at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL) in Lausanne (my previous lab) has been developing and using a flying platform identical to that of the African project for the past two years. The SMAVNET project aims at designing a swarm of Micro Air Vehicles (SMAVs) capable of autonomously establishing emergency wireless networks (SMAVNETs) between multiple ground-users in a disaster area. A swarm of flying robots could replace damaged, inexistent or congested networks. For more information check out their video on Bio-Inspired Flying Robots (full version here) which grabbed the Best Video Award at the AI Video Competition earlier this year.
The flying platform used in both projects is promising because it combines affordable hardware with efficient aerodynamics and easy handling. As I know from some of my own flight attempts, it's design with the plane's rotor mounted behind the wing also makes the platform extremely robust - an essential property for autonomous landing attempts among other things.