A public-private partnership using drones and specialized medical shipping containers is aiming to save lives in the wake of natural disasters, such as Hurricane Dorian, or on the battlefield.

Oklahoma State University’s Unmanned System Research Institute has teamed up with Stillwater startup MaxQ to demonstrate the life-saving capabilities of drone technology.

The project, which began last year, combines OSU’s drone expertise with MaxQ’s proprietary insulated medical containers to improve delivery times for blood, medicine and other crucial supplies.

“The whole point of this is to really deliver (blood and/or medicine) in a really fast, autonomous fashion,” said Jamey Jacob, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and director of the USRI — or drone program — at OSU.

Rotary and fixed-wing drones are being used in the project.

They can carry specialized containers developed by MaxQ to first responders and medics within minutes.

The drones can be operated by a pilot using a remote control or can be programmed where to go.

“Essentially, we can go where we need to go with a push of a button,” Jacob said.

MaxQ, founded in 2013, has developed specialized medical containers that can store blood for up to 24 hours and carry other medical supplies.

The company is a blood-packaging provider for about 350 hospitals and several blood centers, said MaxQ CEO Saravan Kumar.

“Typically, when you deploy blood in an emergency situation, if (first responders) have access to blood right then and there, they can start treating patients instead of waiting until they are at the hospital. It is extremely effective,” he said.

The containers attached to the drones can carry about four pints of blood or several bags of medicine and medical supplies.

Blood is normally stored at 33.8 to 42.8 degrees and can be stored for 24 to 48 hours, depending on the size of the container, said Jan Hale, spokeswoman for the Northeast Oklahoma branch of the American Red Cross.

Jacob said an aim of the project would be to launch a “swarm” of drones that could deliver a relatively large amount of supplies following a disaster. The system also could be used by the military.

“This stuff is a great technology for delivery of military supplies to the front lines. It could be used for needed treatment when you have a firefight,” he said.

The rotary drones carrying MaxQ containers can fly for about 45 minutes and have a radius of 5 to 6 miles, depending on weather conditions, Jacob said.

The fixed-wing drones can fly about 90 minutes with a range of about 60 miles, he said.

Charging batteries for the drones takes about an hour, but swapping them out with a fresh set takes minutes, he said.

While there are still a few “bugs that have to be worked out,” Jacob said, “In theory, we could take it out today.”

He said the biggest obstacle to the program is gaining regulatory permission to fly.

Last month, the Federal Aviation Administration approved tests for the first drone flight beyond the operator’s sight line for OSU.

OSU has since received approval from the FAA to conduct limited beyond-visual-line-of-sight tests with multiple drones.

Future tests and demonstrations are planned at OSU’s Unmanned Aircraft Flight Station in Glencoe, about 15 miles northeast of Stillwater.

OSU has about 100 drones in the USRI program, Jacob said.

“It’s a fantastic partnership,” Kumar said of working with OSU. “I think this is just the beginning of our partnership, and we look forward to continuing to work with USRI to develop this platform and make it possible to save lives.”

“It is only a matter of time before we see this capability deployed during every disaster to aid the first responders for the benefit of the victims,” Jacob said.

As of last week, Hurricane Dorian had resulted in at least 50 deaths, 1,300 missing and 70,000 people homeless in the Bahamas.

“If we had this technology in the Bahamas now, I am confident we could help save lives and mitigate the suffering of the Bahamian people,” Jacob said.


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Michael Dekker

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