First UAS delivery drops medicine in Virginia

By Emily Aasand | July 20, 2015

In a first-of-its-kind operation, industry and government partners joined to use unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) to deliver medical supplies to a health clinic in Wise, Virginia. The Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership, led by Virginia Tech, oversaw the research flights.

The flights were designed to investigate the aircraft for the delivery of pharmaceuticals and other medical supplies in rural areas, where transportation challenges often get in the way of health care.

“Unmanned aerial systems are an emerging technology that can make people’s lives better and contribute to our efforts to build a new Virginia economy,” said Gov. Terry McAuliffe. “Today we witnessed historic flights that demonstrate the potential for unmanned aircraft to provide essential services to citizens in remote locations in Virginia and across the globe. Virginia is once again paving a path to the future.”

More than a dozen community members, industry and government partners—including Flirtey Inc., an Australian UAS company and NASA’s Langley Research Center—teamed up to execute the delivery.

“Moving this technology safely into the nation’s skies has tremendous potential to help people and create new economic opportunities,” said Virginia Tech President Timothy Sand, who was on hand to observe the flights. “The unmanned systems test site program at Virginia Tech supports our mission to create knowledge that will benefit the commonwealth and meet the needs of our changing world.”

The flights used two unmanned aircraft ranging from a hexacopter, weighing no more than 10 pounds, to NASA’s SR-22, a remotely operated aircraft with a pilot on board. In total, the flights covered more than 40 miles. NASA’s large fixed-wing aircraft transported the medical cargo to Lonesome Pine Airport in Wise, Virginia. At the airport, the medications were transferred to aircraft operated by Flirtey.

“This is a Kitty Hawk moment not just for Flirtey, but for the entire industry,” said Matt Sweeny, Flirtey CEO. “Proving that unmanned aircraft can deliver lifesaving medicines is an important step toward a future where unmanned aircraft make routine autonomous deliveries of your everyday purchases.”

According to the university, the small hexacopter made several runs between the airport and the final destination, a clinic operated by the Health Wagon, a health care outreach organization, and Remote Area Medical, an international nonprofit humanitarian group. A total of 24 packages were transported to the clinic, which provides free medical, dental and vision services to more than 1,500 patients every year.

“People who need medicines or even stitches too often have to go without because they live in rural areas where transportation can be a challenge,” said Teresa Gardner, the executive director of the Health Wagon. “This technology could open so many doors for our patients and our community.”

“We hope to be able to extend this type of activity,” said Rose Mooney, executive director of MAAP. “This was a very controlled research environment today, and of course there are many logistical and safety concerns that would need to be resolved before these deliveries could become routine. But today’s flights show the capabilities of this technology and its value to the public.”


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