Drones to the rescue

Mahabir Pun’s National Innovation Centre tests medicopters to treat patients in remote areas

In an unassuming office in Kupondol, electrical engineer Suraj Karki turns on the DC power supply, and the room goes quiet as his team waits for the octocopter on a table to show signs of life.

Sure enough, its coloured lights blink, and the rotors start spinning with a whine. Relief and excitement floods the office. Later, after a successful outdoor test flight, Karki’s team names the medicopter Puspak, after the legendary flying machine from the Ramayana.

“We want people to regard our drones as messengers from God, delivering life-saving support,” says Karki, who hopes to have medicopters fully operational in two years.

The flight test of the locally-made prototype to deliver medicines to remote health centres in Nepal is one of the first projects of Mahabir Pun’s National Innovation Center (NIC) which the Magsaysay Prize winner set up to allow Nepali engineers to apply their knowledge in their own country.

“I want to stop the brain drain of talented people by supporting them in the development of innovative technologies that bring economic growth to Nepal, not to build strong economies elsewhere,” says Pun, who himself returned from the United States to launch rural Internet networks, telemedicine and agricultural services to over 200 remote villages in Nepal.

Photos: Bikram Rai

The social entrepreneur first piloted a telemedicine program in 2006 to enable rural patients to consult doctors in Kathmandu-based hospitals. Currently, ten rural health centres conduct virtual classes with consultants in Pun’s home district of Myagdi, while the government has introduced telemedicine in 25 districts.

Karki and his colleague Ramraj Khanal say they were inspired to work on drones when Pun visited Pulchok Engineering Campus two years ago. With three other members of the college’s Robotics Club, the team built the medicopter prototype.

“In the past we built drones for fun, now it’s for real,” says Karki with a grin, as he recalls how difficult it was to get parts to assemble the craft. The team searched junkyards in Kathmandu, and the steel pipe for the test drone, for example, was scavenged from a Japanese photocopy machine.

Pun is delighted with the passion for innovation of young Nepalis like Karki and Khanal, and tells us: “We are glad we can provide talented people with the space, tools and investment to develop their ideas."

The NIC was set up with $600,000 in donations from Nepalis here and abroad, but Pun’s long term goal is to make it sustainable by building a hydropower plant, and then run the Centre with income generated by selling electricity to the grid.

Besides medical drones, NIC is also helping Nepali scientists grow cordyceps for medical use, produce a new brand of health drink, and set up solar and biogas plants.

Pun got assurances from two prime ministers to help NIC with funds which never materialised, so he is selling his own land and all the medals he has been awarded to raise more money.

Tribhuvan University has offered a plot of land to build an office, and Pun’s vision is for NIC to be an incubator and start a ‘micro Silicon Valley’ for startups.

Says the 63-year-old: “I tried to raise incomes in remote villages with pilot projects, but now realise change has to come from the national level. NIC is not social work, but nation building. I am tired of seeing my country being poor.”

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