Pandemic responseDeveloping Drones to Address Pandemic-Related Challenges in Scandinavia

Published 23 June 2021

The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic spurred an immediate need to develop new, innovative systems in supply chains and infrastructure. And for three Norwegian graduate students enrolled in the MIT Professional Education Advanced Study Program (ASP), spring 2020 was the moment when technology, innovation, and preparation met opportunity. The students began working together to transport biological samples using autonomous vehicles.

The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic spurred an immediate need to develop new, innovative systems in supply chains and infrastructure. And for three Norwegian graduate students enrolled in the MIT Professional Education Advanced Study Program (ASP), spring 2020 was the moment when technology, innovation, and preparation met opportunity.

Lars Erik Matsson Fagernæs, Bernhard Paus Græsdal, and Herman Øie Kolden were all students at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) but only met after they arrived on the MIT campus for their ASP in 2019. Fagernæs came to MIT to study computer science, Græsdal focused on robotics, and Kolden came to study plasma physics, though he had prior experience with drones through a job at a defense contractor.

When the pandemic began in early 2020, Fagernæs, Græsdal, and Kolden were all still in Cambridge, Massachusetts. NTNU would eventually recall them home, but not for a few months. To pass the time, they read news from Norway and identified a problem that they thought they could solve.

Norway is not an easy country to traverse, with roads laid out circuitously around mountains and fjords. Small regional hospitals do not have easy access to the labs and testing facilities at larger university hospitals. “Some local governments don’t even test for Covid during weekends because they have issues with transportation,” says Fagernæs. “In some parts in the north, you have to drive for 10 or 15 hours just to transport tests to the hospital for analysis.”

The friends had already been working on a drone-related project and pivoted to the idea of making a drone to transport biological samples. They chose a fixed-wing quadcopter design that combines vertical takeoff and landing with efficient long-distance travel.

Long-Duration Drones for Medical Delivery
Their prototype drones were built at MIT and tested in the Johnson Athletic Center around its running track. They found inspiration in the work of MIT professors like Russ Tedrake, director of the Center for Robotics at the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and a professor of electrical engineering and computer science.

“Bernhard and Lars took my graduate robotics class,” Tedrake says. “They were extremely engaged and regularly asked questions that made it clear they were not just listening to the lectures, but were actively experimenting with the ideas. My role was to introduce them to topics in dynamics, control, and optimization, and talk them through the projects, but the innovation and hard work was all theirs!”

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