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Improving Healthcare With Drones

Robotics, Drones, Health Care4 min read

Ponaravind Muthaiah

Meet Ponaravind Muthaiah

Robotics Researcher @ Autonomous Systems for S.P.A.C.E. R.O.B.O.T.I.C.S.

Cincinnati, Ohio, United States 

Ponaravind Muthaiah is a Graduate Student Researcher at Autonomous Systems for S.P.A.C.E. R.O.B.O.T.I.C.S. Lab in the University of Cincinnati and a member of 5 student teams on campus.

His research areas are Unmanned Vehicles, Control Engineering, and Computer Vision. He develops and tests algorithms in software and hardware, currently researching "Safe Optimization of Time-Critical Medical Delivery Operations for UAV Teaming in a Dynamic Urban Airspace."

His areas of interest are urban air mobility, self-driving cars, mobile robots, and sUAS.


What inspired you to pursue a career in robotics?

During my undergrad education in mechanical engineering, our team worked on designing and building a prototype of a 2-seater self-driving car from scratch which can also be controlled by voice commands and remote control along with obstacle avoidance capabilities.

We were awarded “Dr. Kalam Young Achiever Award” by The World Youth Federation which invited applications for innovative projects all over the state of Tamil Nadu, India, and our project was selected as one of the innovative projects.

Although I primarily worked on the hardware, assisting the software team intrigued me to learn more about robotic programming.

I started working on my coding skills and applied for a master’s degree in Dynamics, Controls, and Intelligent Systems at the University of Cincinnati (UC).

How did you become a Robotics Engineer?

I joined Dr. Catharine McGhan’s Autonomous Systems for S.P.A.C.E. R.O.B.O.T.I.C.S. Lab, UC where I am researching on optimizing UAV delivery operations for medical supplies in time-critical, constrained scenarios of an urban environment incorporating Resilient Spacecraft Executive (RSE) architecture to enable real-time onboard decision-making using ROS, Gazebo, C++ and Python.

Apart from coursework, as an active member of student organizations on campus, I enjoy engaging with fellow UC students in five student teams:

This created a shared base of knowledge for me to draw upon, tremendously improving my software and hardware skills.

I have also participated in two hackathons, SkyHack - a weekend-long aviation-focused design challenge at Kent State University and RevolutionUC - a 24-hour hackathon at the University of Cincinnati where we won the "Most Innovative Hack" prize.

More information about these projects: devpost.com/ponaravind.

So, I would say, these experiences gave me a good start to be a robotics engineer.

Mention one goal you would like to reach in the next 10 years as a Roboticist?

My goal is to become a full-stack engineer with in-depth knowledge and expertise in both software and hardware, well versed in different areas in addition to my current work in Motion Planning.

I believe there’s always so much to learn in programming and systems thinking. My areas of interest are urban air mobility, self-driving cars, mobile robots, and sUAS.

Explain the differences between motion planning and trajectory planning?

Path planning involves geometric pathfinding/waypoint generation without considering the velocity/acceleration profile of the body in motion (determining the route to be taken without considering time).

Trajectory planning considers the velocity/acceleration profile of the body in motion (change of position over time).

Motion planning has more constraints involving the dynamics of the body itself in addition to the geometric path, velocity, acceleration profile.

Explain what tasks delivery drones could be used in a medical emergency?

Medical emergencies are time-critical. To name a few tasks, delivering medical supplies from the hospital to a disaster relief zone or to a car crash site in urgent need of a blood type.

Also, mapping disaster areas by drones could improve response time by assessing damage and providing relief supplies quicker than usual.

Drones equipped with thermal sensors are also used to identify hot-spots rapidly and extinguish wildfires by sending firefighters to those hot-spots.

Explain how delivery drones and unmanned vehicles can be beneficial in the middle of a Pandemic?

I have been seeing a lot of articles recently about drones and autonomous vehicle usage during this coronavirus pandemic.

Companies like JD Logistics, Terra Drone have used drones, mobile robots to transport medical supplies like face masks, testing supplies in China to quarantine zones to reduce direct contact and improve delivery speed.

Zipline is using drones to deliver patient test samples in Ghana, North Carolina. The key points here are that unmanned vehicle delivery has enabled contactless delivery and improved delivery times which are essential in an emergency like a pandemic. Such differences could be life-saving.

Explain with one example of how autonomous drones could change the delivery industry?

Blood has a short shelf life and requires special storage and timely delivery in emergencies even in mountainous regions.

Which is exactly what Zipline is doing in Rwanda, in an emergency, it can take up to 5 hours for a Rwandan hospital to receive a blood delivery via road.

UAV delivery benefits from speed, reduced carbon footprint while delivery trucks encounter traffic congestion and potentially account for rough terrain or blocked roadways.

It also lowers delivery vehicle fleet maintenance cost, fuel cost, labor cost, shipping cost.

What challenges delivery drones are facing for their use and development?

  • Drone station placement: To enable a longer range and time of operation. Companies like EVA are working on providing drone infrastructure with stations for dispatch, charging, full ground control to carry out drone missions.

  • FAA regulations, Air traffic control

  • Figuring out ways to set up drones with lower noise pollution because delivery drone fleet flying all over the airspace could be very noisy causing discomfort to people

  • To not drift into restricted airspace like airports, stadiums, military bases

  • Landing zone – How, where, the security of delivered packages

  • For food delivery, medical aid the storage must retain heat/cold

  • Operations in extreme weather conditions

  • To reduce weight especially battery (which usually is the heavier part)