Drone experts in Alabama test disaster response from the sky

University of Alabama Huntsville nursing student Sara Lin stood on a hillside in northern Alabama on Tuesday morning with nothing in sight but a remote farm. His eyes focused on a cotton field.

A black box-shaped plane appeared behind a row of trees below and headed towards Lin. Helicopter-like blades on each corner quickly revealed that the craft was the drone Lin was looking for.

After a soft landing about 15 feet away, the blades stopped and Lin walked quickly towards the craft. Leaning forward, she opened a cargo drawer, pulled out a soft pack of plasma hidden inside, and turned to an unfolding catastrophe. A large tornado had swept through the area less than an hour earlier, killing one and seriously injuring five in that location alone.

Sara Lin, a nursing student at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, delivers “plasma” brought by a drone to a remote, simulated disaster site.

None of this was real, but Azita Amiri, a nursing professor at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, thinks this type of airlift could be common in disaster areas. That’s why she and other university nursing instructors were here early in the morning to train their nursing students to work with drones.

Efforts to better coordinate drone responses to natural and man-made disasters just won the University of Alabama at Huntsville (UAH) a three-year, $828,070 grant, the second-largest in a series. a band recently awarded by the Federal Aviation Department of the United States Department of Transportation. Administration (FAA).

UAH will collaborate with Kansas State University, New Mexico State University, University of Vermont, and North Carolina State University. The goal is to put in place procedures to integrate drone operators within federal agencies such as the Department of the Interior and the Department of Homeland Security with local and state disaster preparedness and disaster preparedness agencies. emergency response.

There are some do’s and don’ts for working near drones in the field. Keep your ears and eyes open. Do not approach a drone until it is down with the rotors stopped. Under current rules, the drone pilot must be in sight throughout the drone’s flight path, although this rule may change as camera and tracking technology improves and the distance drones can fly increase.

“If we don’t have blood, we can call an urban center and put blood in a drone,” Amiri said as an example of how drones could help provide emergency care at disaster sites. accidents or disasters. “There are no traffic problems.”

Medicine delivery by drone

The UAH Nursing and Aerospace Committee, in conjunction with the UAH Rotorcraft Systems Engineering and Simulation Center and representatives from Skyfire Corporation, conducted an exercise using of a drone to deliver medical supplies to the nursing building on the UAH campus, Feb. 16, 2022. (Michael Mercier/ UAH).The University of Alabama, Huntsville

Casey Calamalo is a research engineer at the Center for Rotorcraft Systems Engineering and Simulation at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. He said the purpose of this experiment could go beyond just responding to disasters. It’s possible drones could be useful in disadvantaged communities without access to medical care, he said.

Amiri works with a small town in Alabama now without a clinic 20 miles away and with only one doctor. “To get treatment, you have to move. And if you don’t have a car or money for gas…. Camalo paused. The thought has come to an end.

“We could combine drone (drug delivery) with telehealth,” Calamalo said. “It would be faster than a car.”

It’s not just a good idea; it’s a matter of “health equity”, say proponents of medical drones. People shouldn’t be denied medical care because of where they live if there is safe and reliable technology that can make a difference.

But FAA rules still govern all things drone flight, and the agency oversees a growing industry that can range from medical drones and other tools to recreational toys. Today, drones cannot fly more than 2 miles from their pilots and must be visible all the way. “We need software to track drones,” Calamalo said.

The current rules are strict. “Not many people know that you still have to apply for permission to fly,” said UAH Aviation Safety Office Steve Warr.

Back at the tornado site, the nursing students give first aid to other students claiming to be injured, and their instructors watch every move.

Sara Lin heads back up the hill to pick up another load of incoming drone support fluids. Again, she must wait until the drone is on the ground and all rotors have stopped.

Asked about the experience later, Lin agreed that drones could be useful in real-life situations like these. And she expects to see more drones – not fewer – in her career.


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