The University of Alabama in Huntsville just completed its first simulation project to transport life-saving medical supplies to rural areas, all with the power of drone technology.
Right now, there's a lot of needed manpower to get supplies from an urban area to a rural one. The added supply chain issues and labor shortages create a major roadblock.
That's where UAH nursing professor Azita Amiri thought of a way to give rural communities equal access to health care, using drones.
"You can use drones to deliver like blood for transfusion to a patient, from one specific area in the city, to another specific area," said Amiri. "We can carry vaccines, like Covid-19 vaccine and any other sort of vaccine."
They're also trying to get a package for overdoses, Amiri said.
The Matrice 200 is the drone being used to transport medical supplies. It can hold up to 15 pounds.
"Everything from incubation and airway cell delivery to overdose and narcotic overdose, to really an (automated external defibrillator)," said Casey Calamaio, research engineer of Rotorcraft Systems Engineering. "Just earlier this year, actually, the first life saved from an AED delivered by drone was recorded."
The idea to use the drones for rural areas of North Alabama was sparked by work Amiri did with the Environmental Justice Communities.
"One specific community that they work with is Uniontown in Perry County, south of Montgomery, and this community does not have access to health care," said Amiri. "The only physician working there is a family physician."
UAH hosted a simulation to see their project in action.
They called one part of campus the "rural area." There, they had a pregnant woman experiencing pre-term labor. Since she was in the "rural area," the location lacked the testing needed to see if the woman's water had ruptured.
"They communicated and that urban clinic sent them testing to see if the water broke in this patient, and also if she needs any medicine," said Amiri.
But before medical drones can take to the skies for real patients, the research engineer on the project said there's more to be done.
For starters, they need to "coordinate through the College of Nursing with telehealth centers across Alabama in rural communities, to start to figure out what challenges exist for operating aircraft long distances for medical delivery," said Calamaio.
There's also a hurdle to cross with the Federal Aviation Administration. It's limited action for long-distance travel of drones, but Calamaio said the university is applying for Public Aircraft Operator Status.
"That allows us to then be able to apply for more waivers and authorizations, extend the types of complex operations," said Calamaio.
Huntsville International Airport is a partner in helping this project get off the ground. The airport facilitates airspace for unmanned systems.
"It's an automated process that remote pilots, anyone flying just for fun — so hobbyists as well as commercial operators of drones — can use to request access to the airspace, or at least coordinate with air traffic control, to be able to fly drones within that environment," said Calamaio.
Calamaio said UAH is the lead university for drone applications within disaster response and community resilience.
A simulation involving students is set to take place in April.
"I think the partnership with the College of Nursing in the U.S. Research Programs at the Rotorcraft Center is a great first step," said Calamaio.