Support Provided ByLearn More
Tech + EngineeringTech & Engineering

Hurricane Relief Drones Could Put Eyes In the Sky

ByKelsey TsipisNOVA NextNOVA Next

The future of medical disaster relief may be unmanned.

Receive emails about upcoming NOVA programs and related content, as well as featured reporting about current events through a science lens.

Drones are being hailed as a safe, efficient way to improve medical disaster relief efforts due to recent advancements in aerial technology and developments in Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations.

One recent example comes from researchers at the William Carey University College of Osteopathic Medicine, who developed a drone capable of delivering a 20-pound medical kit to otherwise inaccessible patients, such as those in areas most affected by the recent hurricanes.

Support Provided ByLearn More
The FAA’s swift response to Irma, shown here, highlights a new, more receptive approach to the use of drones during crises.

The drone, an eight-propeller machine that measures just under two feet, comes complete with Google Glass for audio and visual contact with a physician who remotely directs treatment.

The contents of the medical kit can be customized to different emergency situations, such as a defibrillator for cardiac events, gauze and bandages for traumatic injuries, or vaccines for infectious disease outbreaks.

“The telemedicine drone is really good for saving one person,” said Amna Greaves, a technical staff member in the MIT Lincoln Laboratory Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief Systems Group. “You’ve got one person who needs aid, you fly out the kit, they put on the glasses, they get some information from a real doctor on how to supply the contents of the kit, and you save a life.”

Greaves and her team have been working on broader responses to medical disaster relief. In partnership with the Department of Homeland Security’s Next Generation First Responder Apex Program, they developed drones that trace cell signals from disaster victims and use thermal imaging technology for large-scale search and rescue efforts after natural disasters.

“Finding people and finding them rapidly [after a natural disaster] is very important, and there’s a caveat in there…when you have no communications and no power,” said Greaves. “That’s when drones become an absolutely life-saving asset.”

Past reluctance to incorporate drones into widespread telemedicine practices is in part due to past heavy FAA regulation.

However, the FAA’s swift response to Irma highlights a new, more receptive approach to drones during crises.

As of September 15, the FAA says it issued over 100 temporary airspace authorizations for Irma recovery efforts to ensure that the drones can operate safely.

“We also have issued 137 authorizations, sometimes within a few hours, to drone operators performing search and rescue missions and assessing damage associated with Harvey,” said an FAA spokesperson.

According to the FAA, many of the drones are being deployed primarily by insurance, telecommunication, and electric companies to map downed infrastructure. In a recent press release, they called drones “invaluable” in supporting response and recovery efforts in Florida.

Drone technology has come a long way in the last year, too, incorporating lighter, more powerful engines into more aerodynamic, hardier exoskeletons. For example, researchers from Johns Hopkins recently successfully transported blood samples across 161 miles, a new record for medical drones.

Veteran storm-chaser and photojournalist Brian Emfinger says drones have advanced enough in recent years to withstand the harsh weather conditions of natural disasters.

“Before this year, drones weren’t very operational in hurricane winds and rains,” Emfinger said. “It’s at the point now where they’re not necessarily water resistant, but they’re not going to fall out of the sky if they get a little wet. They’re also powerful enough going up and down that they can handle the stronger winds.”

Emfinger, who flew his compact four-rotor drone in both Harvey and Irma to get some of the earliest pictures of the storm, said that flying in Irma was relatively safe—it’s in the aftermath of storms that extra safety precautions must be taken.

“If there’s an aircraft around, especially a helicopter, we just want to get to the ground,” Emfinger said. “I’ve talked to helicopter pilots, and I know how afraid they are of drones. Nobody wants to be that guy.”

The FAA said that they are aware of only one instance in which a drone interfered with disaster recovery efforts.

One of the world’s largest medical relief agencies is even testing out the technology. In early September, The American Red Cross announced plans to fly a photography drone to assess damage and funnel aid to areas of Houston flooded by Hurricane Harvey.

“This is a medical kitty hawk moment,” wrote Manohari Balasingam in an International Journal of Clinical Practice paper on the emergence of drones in medical care.

Image credit: NOAA/CIR

Funding for NOVA Next is provided by the Eleanor and Howard Morgan Family Foundation.

Major funding for NOVA is provided by the David H. Koch Fund for Science, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and PBS viewers. Additional funding is provided by the NOVA Science Trust.