Olentangy Liberty: Nithin Naikar's HealthDrone could reach remote areas, diagnose disease

Jim Fischer
ThisWeek
Olentangy Liberty High School student Nithin Naikar, 15, is developing HealthDrone, an autonomous medical drone, to provide baseline assessments in places without access to medical care or a reliable internet connection. The project has earned several awards, including from the International Council on Systems Engineering and Air Force Research Laboratory. Naikar is pictured with his drone May 27 in Powell.

Nithin Naikar had a simple, three-step plan for augmenting his schoolwork while learning from home during the coronavirus pandemic.

One, learn programming. Two, build a drone from scratch. Three, teach it to perform a series of fundamental medical diagnostic procedures.

In truth, it’s a plan that evolved, beginning with encouragement from his parents to try online courses in computer programming. That evolution led to the ongoing development of HealthDrone, which has earned awards in multiple science-project competitions.

“When (Nithin and his twin sister, Neena) were doing school at home, we encouraged them to learn programming because we saw that they were having some extra time,” said Sudhir Naikar, Nithin’s father. “We were surprised because not only did (Nithin) pick up Python (a programming language), but he earned some professional certifications.”

Nithin explains.

“When I started this project, I didn’t really know much except for the algebra,” said the 15-year-old, who will be a sophomore at Olentangy Liberty High School. “It was daunting. Now I’m coding voice scripts for the (drone’s) patient interface.”

That interface is at the core of HealthDrone, an autonomous medical drone providing remote, offline diagnoses of biometric data, specifically designed to serve the medical needs of populations in remote areas with minimal or no access to medical facilities or the internet.

“The drone will fly to a location – say a remote village -- and initiate a script that the patient then executes,” Nithin said. “It has sensors designed to provide input on heart disease, lung disease and skin disease, as well as their mental state and visual acuity. The results are then compiled into a patient report for a doctor once the drone flies back to a medical center.”

The inspiration for the real-world application of Nithin’s project came from the Michael Crichton novel, “Prey,” which features an army of drones, and a close-to-home understanding of how the pandemic affected less developed parts of the world, he said.

This is Olentangy Liberty student Nithin Naikar's HealthDrone, shown May 27.

“We are first-generation immigrants from India,” Nithin’s mother, Rashmi Naikar, said. “Our family was very impacted. I lost my aunt to (COVID-19). Because of our extended family in India, Nithin could see how it was impacting underdeveloped countries.”

“The plan is to have thousands of these drones across the world to help people get access to health care in remote locations,” Nithin said.

Sudhir Naikar said the family has ordered drone parts from Amazon frequently over the past several months and Naikar learned, literally, the nuts and bolts of building a drone.

“He’s destroyed a few along the way, but we could see that he was working hard,” Sudhir said. “He never asked for technical help. He did classes online in machine learning alongside the programming.”

“It’s been a lot of trial and error,” Nithin said.

Nithin participated in the 2021 Virtual Marion Area Science and Engineering Fair, hosted by Ohio State University Marion, earlier this year.

HealthDrone earned a Science Champion Award from the U.S. Agency for International Development and qualified for entry into the Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair, held in May. In that event, HealthDrone earned a first-place award from the Air Force Research Laboratory on behalf of the U.S. Air Force and a third-place award from the International Council on Systems Engineering.

Nithin said work on HealthDrone is ongoing. Because of the pandemic, he said, most of the testing has been done at the family’s Powell home. He plans to do more long-range flight testing and testing on more patients and hopes to add some diagnostic functions, as well.

“There is something about a sort of childlike curiosity and not being constrained by any preconceived notions,” Rashmi Naikar said.

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