Use of drones for disaster missions put to the test

June 24, 2016 by Bruce Shipkowski And Dake Kang

How to distribute lifesaving supplies quickly and safely after a natural disaster has long been a puzzle for responders. Now, drones might be the lifesaver.

That idea was put to the test this week in New Jersey as a drone delivery service conducted test flights to help determine whether can be used to carry human medical samples to and from areas that cannot be accessed or communicated with during major storms, earthquakes or other disasters.

Experts say drones are becoming a more valuable tool in many humanitarian operations, where the can be quickly launched and used to collect data and images and help locate people who may be injured or trapped. But Timothy Amukele, an assistant professor of pathology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, said that biological samples "are not like a shoe or a book, they are pretty fragile items."

"For example, if blood is being carried on the back of motorcycle, shaking caused by the bike and its vibrations can ruin the sample," said Amukele, a volunteer adviser to Flirtey, the company that conducted the tests in New Jersey. "We want to see what tasks the drones can perform and if the drones have similar effects on samples they carry."

About 100 people looked on as the drones flew between an onshore medical relief camp and a test facility on a vessel stationed on the Delaware Bay late Wednesday afternoon. They took medical supplies from the vessel to the medical camp, while blood and other medical specimens were flown between the sites.

The tests were done at the invitation of the Field Innovation Team, a nonprofit that works with agencies and experts from various fields to develop solutions to humanitarian disaster scenarios.

The tests came a day after the Obama administration approved the routine use of small drones by real estate agents, farmers, filmmakers and countless other commercial operators after years of struggling to write rules that would both protect public safety and free the benefits of a new technology.

The Reno, Nevada-based firm, conducted what it said was the nation's first autonomous urban drone delivery in the U.S. in March. That happened in Nevada, one of six states the Federal Aviation Administration has designated as unmanned aircraft systems test sites.

Matt Sweeny, Flirtey's chief executive, believes medical will happen "more quickly than people realize," possibly within the next three years. He says such a service could potentially help hundreds of thousands of people, noting the number of residents impacted by recent disasters such as Superstorm Sandy, which struck near the site where the tests were conducted.

Eight of the world's 10 largest cities are coastal communities, and more than three billion people—or 44 percent of the world's population—live within 95 miles of the coast, according to the United Nations.

Amukele believes it will probably take about five years before drones are used regularly in disaster situations. He notes that roughly 59 nations currently have drone regulations, so responders will need to know what rules other countries will put in place.

Agencies involved in humanitarian relief agree that drones have been helpful in certain humanitarian operations for collecting data and imagery where infrastructure is destroyed or was already lacking, including in the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan in November 2013. But they also note that caution must be used in cases where humanitarian relief drones could be mistaken for .

"The potential is indeed huge for drones to deliver small, life-saving packages, such as vaccines," said George Fenton, director of humanitarian innovations at World Vision International, a London-based humanitarian aid, development and advocacy organization. "The potential for confusion between military action and humanitarian work is high, and we must proceed cautiously with this relatively new technology."

Explore further: NJIT to participate in historic first ship-to-shore drone delivery

Related Stories

Recommended for you

Tiny 'water bears' can teach us about survival

March 20, 2019

Earth's ultimate survivors can weather extreme heat, cold, radiation and even the vacuum of space. Now the U.S. military hopes these tiny critters called tardigrades can teach us about true toughness.

A decade on, smartphone-like software finally heads to space

March 20, 2019

Once a traditional satellite is launched into space, its physical hardware and computer software stay mostly immutable for the rest of its existence as it orbits the Earth, even as the technology it serves on the ground continues ...

Researchers find hidden proteins in bacteria

March 20, 2019

Scientists at the University of Illinois at Chicago have developed a way to identify the beginning of every gene—known as a translation start site or a start codon—in bacterial cell DNA with a single experiment and, through ...

Turn off a light, save a life, says new study

March 20, 2019

We all know that turning off lights and buying energy-efficient appliances affects our financial bottom line. Now, according to a new study by University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers, we know that saving energy also saves ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.