Ubiquitous drone use has given us a lot of entertainment over the past five years or so. Amazon deliveries, drone racing, aerial photography, and other flashy uses of unmanned aircraft get a lot of attention, but the same technology could have major applications in disaster relief and emergency medicine. On Wednesday, the drone company Flirtey proved drone-delivered supply missions are a real possibility during the first ship-to-shore delivery in the U.S.
The company released a video today that shows a large delivery drone transporting (fake) blood samples from New Jersey shores to a makeshift barge in the water. In a real-life scenario, medical professionals would analyze the blood samples and pack the appropriate medicines for transport to the shore. Flirtey was able to complete the simulated round trip and deliver the supplies back to the shore by lowering them in a box via a string attached to the drone.
“Imagine in the event of a natural disaster like Hurricane Sandy, the infrastructure, the roads are washed away and drones are a way to get around that,” says Matt Sweeney, co-founder and CEO.
Similar medical drone-delivery programs could become essential in Africa, where poor infrastructure often means remote villages struggle to get important medicine and blood by road. A breakdown of infrastructure in the U.S. could necessitate the same capabilities, but the FAA’s regulations might pose an issue for companies operating domestically.
Flirtey’s test came a day after the FAA released its rules for commercial drone flight, which effectively kills any near future goals of commercial drone delivery. The drone company has complied with the agency before, namely earlier this year when Flirtey conducted the first FAA-approved drone delivery in America, but it’s unclear how the new rules will affect their medical program.
The new rules stipulate, among other things, that unmanned aircraft must weigh under 55 pounds, it must not fly over other people on the ground, and pilots must maintain a visual line of sight to the aircraft.
Since the test was performed over water, the first two rules are easy to satisfy, but operating in direct line of sight is a more vague determination. Based on the video, the drone was technically visible from the shore, but it’s hard to imagine the package could make a swift landing without the operator using a first-person-view headset.
More specifically, the rules state, “At all times the small unmanned aircraft must remain close enough to the remote pilot in command and the person manipulating the flight controls of the small UAS for those people to be capable of seeing the aircraft with vision unaided by any device other than corrective lenses.”
UPDATE: Sweeney tells Inverse that Wednesday’s flight was in line with the FAA’s direct line of sight specifications, adding, “Flirtey is conducting tests this October to fly beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) in collaboration with NASA and we will continue to push the industry forward.”
Here’s the video of the delivery: