Powered by the sun

Ahmed Shatil Alam reveals how the solar-powered three wheeler ambulances can make a significant difference in the lives of people living in the villages and rural towns

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Few years back, on a night, Rashida Akhter, a Feni-based school teacher, fell severely ill with abdominal pain. Her family took her to a nearby physician. But the physician asked the family members to rush her to a hospital on an ambulance if possible.

Akhter’s family could not arrange any ambulance despite several attempts and were forced to take Akhter to the hospital on a rickshaw. On the way to the hospital, which is around 10 miles away from her, she fainted. Fortunately, after immediate treatment on reaching the hospital, she recovered and returned back home after three days.

But not all patients in rural and towns are as fortunate as Akhter, as some of them succumb to their illnesses on the way to the hospital.

While sharing Akhter’s story with New Age Xtra, her husband Amanullah shares that the doctor at the hospital on night duty later told him that she may have passed away if they were late by 10 to 15 minutes more. ‘But the doctor also said that due to the late medical support, she had to face some physical complications,’ he says. Akhter faces the complications till date, Amanullah adds.

The story of Akhter’s pain and of many like heris common in villages, towns and rural areas. In many rural areas, emergency patients are often taken to hospital in hand-pulled rickshaw vans. But a new, small solar powered three-wheeler ambulance is set to hit the road in rural Bangladesh this year that can be the answer to the problems faced by millions of people in rural areas.

The three-wheeler ambulance made by a group of researchers and teachers from BRAC University will fit along narrow roads in rural areas where it is almost impossible for larger ambulances to run.

While talking to New Age Xtra, Raihan Siddique, one of the members of the developer team, described the ambulance as basically a conventional three-wheeler which was otherwise run by the paddles by the pullersimilar to rickshaw, which is powered with a battery that is charged through solar power. ‘In developing the vehicle, we enabled a technology that allows the puller from not paddling,’ he says.

The vehicle is also equipped with first-aid and oxygen facilities for the patients. ‘The three wheeler ambulance can also carry a patient along with an attendance to look after him/her,’ says Siddique.

AKM Abdul Malek Azad, the lead developer anda professor at BRAC University, informed that due to the high price of the ambulances, the community clinics and rural hospitals cannot buy such vehicles. But this cheap ambulance can be afforded by them and this can help the patients as well, says Azad.

The ambulance is expected to cost around Taka 1.5 lakh to 1.6 lakh whereas conventional ambulances cost at least Taka 25 lakh in Bangladesh.

The professor also shared that the idea of the vehicle came to his mind after learning about the solar racing cars in Australia.‘We thought that if researchers can develop a solar racing car, there is potential to develop a solar-powered ambulance,’ he says. This vehicle would be reliant on natural energy sourceand in a way can save power, he adds.

Azad said his team has built and tested five prototypes over the past year. The new ambulances are expected to hit the roads around the end of 2017.

Siddique also adds that the vehicle is also designed to be lighter than the usual ambulances. ‘The three-wheeler becomes heavy if they are equipped with battery. Keeping this in mind, we tried to make it 25 percent lighter than usual weight which can allow the drivers to pull it with more convenience,’ he says. The vehicle can also be paddled, similar to a rickshaw, if the battery stops working.

The new ambulance can accommodate three people. It has a maximum speed of 15-20 kilometres per hour (9-12 mph), and a range of up to 50 km (30 miles).

By day, it is powered by four 100-watt solar panels on the roof. At night, it runs on four 12-volt batteries, charged by the solar panels.

Siddique also says that as the vehicle is a new idea in Bangladesh, the Bangladesh Road Transport Authority is already planning to allow road permits to such vehicles.

BRAC University’s Control and Applications Research Center is running the project in association with vehicle manufacturer Beevatech. The project is also being financed by the World Bank through Bangladesh’s Infrastructure Development Company Limited, with seed funding from the US Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, says Siddique.