When roads, powerlines and other infrastructure are knocked out of action by natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy, getting critical supplies to people in need is all the more difficult. Drones are shaping as hugely promising tools in disaster relief with the ability to quite literally overcome these complications, and a ship-to-shore medical delivery carried out this week with UN and American Red Cross officials on hand has offered a first look at how autonomous flight might come to save lives in the real world.
Australian startup Flirtey has form when it comes to drone-flight firsts in the US. Last year it carried out the first drone delivery exercise approved by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), ferrying medical supplies to rural folk in Virginia. Earlier this year it also completed what was the country's first approved autonomous urban drone delivery, carrying bottled water, emergency food and a first aid kit to an uninhabited residential area in Hawthorne, Nevada.
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On Thursday, the company teamed up with Dr Timothy Amukele, assistant professor of pathology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, to showcase the humanitarian potential of its technology when it comes to disaster relief along coastal regions. But this is no niche market Flirtey is targeting. According to the United Nations, half of the world's population lives within 60 km (37 mi) of the sea, with 75 percent of all major cities lying along the coast. This latest exercise saw medical samples carried autonomously on a round trip between a medical camp on the New Jersey coast and a vessel around 1 km (0.62 mi) offshore.
"On the first leg, Johns Hopkins loaded Flirtey's drones on shore with stool, blood and urine samples, and Flirtey delivered these to the ship," Flirtey CEO Matt Sweeny explains to Gizmag. "On the second leg, Flirtey's delivery drone landed on a barge on turbulent seas and was loaded with medical supplies, including water purification tablets, insulin and a first aid kit, and delivered these ship-to-shore to representatives from the United Nations and the American Red Cross."
For the past couple of years researchers have been chipping away on drones that could transform the way search and rescue efforts are performed. Their early work has included building drones that tune into mobile phone signals to find survivors, scan disaster zones for breathing and heartbeats and search for people with cognitive disorders that have wandered away from home.
But you do feel that the wheels are starting to turn for the technology as a whole. Earlier this week, the FAA set its first nationwide laws for commercial drone flight, which will soon give all US companies the ability to use drones for business, provided they have the appropriate license and keep the aircraft within their line of sight (among other requirements). This precludes large-scale drone deliveries like those imagined by Amazon for the time-being, but could give short-range medical drop-offs like that demonstrated by Flirtey the green light.
"Imagine a future where in the event of a natural disaster like Hurricane Sandy, Flirtey drones rapidly deliver emergency medical supplies, food and water," says Sweeny. "This demonstration is helping to make that future a reality, and taking us one step closer to Flirtey's mission to save lives and change lifestyles."
You can hear from the people involved in the project in the video below.