Sped by the Sun

If you look closely, you’ll find that the front of this ambulance looks suspiciously like a cycle.

Sped by the Sun

It was the solar-powered racing-cars in Australia that gave Abdul Malek Azad the idea. Azad is a professor at BRAC University in Dhaka, and also the leader of a project to make a solar-powered ambulance.

Bangladesh has seen many deaths not because of bad hospitals, but because there is no way for people to get to them in time. Roads are often so bad that it’s impossible for ordinary vehicles to drive on them. That’s why the new ambulance is not an ordinary vehicle.

If you look closely, you’ll find that the front of the ambulance looks suspiciously like a cycle. That’s because it is a cycle — or, more precisely, a modified cycle-rickshaw complete with pedals. In rural areas, a cycle-rickshaw is actually the way most people get to hospital. (A report by the Thomson Reuters foundation says “hand-pushed rickshaws”, but the Dhaka Tribune mentions pedalling — and they would probably know better).

The ambulances can carry three people in addition to the driver, and, unlike normal rickshaws, they have a nice bed for the patients to lie down. They are also as well-equipped as an ordinary ambulance, and can travel at a speed of 15–20 kilometres per hour. You might think that’s slow, but it’s faster than an ordinary rickshaw. And remember the bumpy road: anything would want to go slow on that, even if it was capable of going faster.

With four 100-watt solar-panels on its roof, the solar ambulance is independent from petrol-pumps as well as from Bangladesh’s already overloaded electricity-grid. The solar panels power the ambulance during the day, and also charge a battery for use at night. The battery takes 3–4 hours to charge, and can last upto 50 kilometres. A plan is on to set up charging booths — also solar-powered — in case more charge is needed at night.

Is the ambulance working well? It hasn’t been put into full use yet, but five prototypes have been made and tested so far. People who have seen it seem to think it’s a good idea. Meanwhile, officials from the BRAC Health and Nutrition programme have said they will “consider using it”. Dr. Sahana Nazneen of the BRAC Health and Nutrition Population Programme has said the vehicles are cost-effective and should be affordable for rural hospitals.

The estimated cost of making the vehicles is ৳1.5 to 2 lakhs (on taka is about 0.84 rupees). Compared to ৳20 lakh for an ordinary ambulance, this makes it atleast ten times cheaper. Not to mention all the benefits it will give the environment, with no exhaust fumes to speak of.

BRAC University is teaming up with vehicle manufacturer Beevatech, and they expect to have the ambulances in action before the year is out.

Other, more well-known electric vehicles planned for 2017 include the Chevrolet Bolt EV, the Hyundai Ioniq Electric, and the long-awaited Tesla Model 3. But none of them is likely to impact as many people as the solar ambulance does. “I thought”, Abdul Malek Azad said, “if researchers can develop a solar racing car, there is potential to develop a solar ambulance.” After all, what other situation would have a more urgent need for speed?

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This article was originally published in Sirius #240 5–18 March 2017 “Solar Ambulance”.