BY ROBERT SORRELL | BRISTOL HERALD COURIER
WISE, Va. — During this summer’s Remote Area Medical clinic in Wise, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), or drones, will deliver pharmaceuticals and other medical supplies for the first time in the United States, according to organizers.
RAM, an annual free medical clinic that serves more than 1,500 people, NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, and Flirtey Inc., an Australian startup company specializing in delivery using unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), are teaming up to deliver medicine at the event on July 17.
Jack Kennedy, Wise County’s circuit court clerk and one of the organizers, said NASA aircraft will transport the medication from the Tazewell County Airport to Lonesome Pine Airport. Six-rotor hexacopters, or drones, will then fly to the fairgrounds, where the RAM clinic is held. They will hover over the fairgrounds, tether the medication to the ground to waiting volunteers and unload. The drones, which will not land, will then return for more supplies.
Kennedy declared the drone deliveries as a “Kitty Hawk moment for Wise County.”
The Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership at Virginia Tech is overseeing the research flights as part of an event called “Let’s Fly Wisely.”
“This is an example of using UAS technology [or UAV technology] for a socially significant purpose while also opening up economic opportunities,” said Jon Greene, an associate director of the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science at Virginia Tech and the acting associate director of the Mid-Atlantic Aviation. “It is a win-win solution.”
Also during the event, members of a news coalition working with Virginia Tech will participate in research flights to advance uses of unmanned aircraft in newsgathering. Video will also be captured at the event.
“This is a Kitty Hawk moment not just for Flirtey, but for the entire industry,” said Flirtey CEO Matt Sweeny. “Proving that unmanned aircraft can deliver life-saving medicines is an important step toward a future where unmanned aircraft make routine autonomous deliveries of your everyday purchases.”
Stan Brock, RAM’s founder, said the use of drones is something the organization could implement worldwide, especially in hard-to-access and dangerous areas of Africa and Asia.
“This is going to be something that in the future, you are going to see a lot of,” said Brock, who noted that drones are safer to use in danger zones than manned flights.
The free clinic is jointly operated by the Health Wagon, a local health care outreach organization.
“People who need medicine 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.”
The RAM deliveries are just part of efforts to increase awareness of drones in Southwest Virginia. Prior to the event, Kennedy will be hosting the Drone and Space Law: Let’s Fly Wisely seminar, which will be held July 15 at The Inn at Wise.
Lawyers from around the country are expected to attend the seminar, but Kennedy noted the public is also welcome to join. Several high-profile leaders are expected to participate in the two events, including U.S. Sen. Mark Warner and Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe.
Kennedy has been conducting outreach with area youth regarding drones and aerospace technologies, and he believes July will be a major milestone.
In addition to increasing awareness about drones, especially for citizens who may be concerned about drones flying over their homes, Kennedy noted three key areas to undertake in the long term.
Kennedy noted education, such as operator-pilot training at Mountain Empire Community College, which is already scheduled; UAV applications for local businesses and advanced manufacturing of UAV in the region.
And regarding those citizens with concerns, the Federal Aviation Administration has been actively studying the use of drones in the U.S. and will likely develop additional rules and regulations for usage.
For more information, visit letsflywisely.com.