Drones aren’t typically thought of as manned aircraft. Either the drone is remotely piloted or it flies autonomously following a pre-programmed flight pattern. The term Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, or UAV, reflects this understanding. But manned drones do exist. Jetson, a Swedish company has already sold the first 12 models of its single-seat manned aircraft, which some refer to as an electronic Vertical Take Off and Landing (eVTOL) “quadcopter,” owing to its four rotary blades. For purists, drones can still be drones if those aboard aren’t piloting the aircraft. Otherwise, they’re not really drones – they’re a kind of helicopter or just a small piloted airplane.
The real issue is why someone would want a pilot aboard a drone to begin with. Isn’t a key drone selling point its ability to fly without one, saving on labor costs and safety, without compromising mission quality? Not necessarily. Falck, a Danish medical services company, has been experimenting with a mix of manned and unmanned drones to improve medical delivery in areas of the world where settlements are highly dispersed and difficult to reach. In these areas, rapid delivery of medicines from regional hospitals to local clinics is essential to ensure timely and effective health care. A good example is Greenland, where Falck has partnered with the Agency for Health and Prevention and the Greenland Center for Health Research to test a mix of logistics systems tailored to local conditions. One pilot drone program involves the establishment of a dedicated diagnostic and treatment delivery system linking Dronning Ingrid Hospital in Greenland’s capital city of Nuuk with smaller settlements like Kapisillit and Qeqertarsuatsiaat. Kapisillit is just 47 miles away but with numerous marshy fjords to cross, getting there by road isn’t easy.
Falck and its partners found that unmanned drones were effective at delivering badly needed medical supplies to the two settlements from the hospital in Nuuk once the need for those supplies had been established. But in the case of local medical emergencies, a preliminary assessment by a trained paramedic was also needed. For these contingencies, Falck opted to partner with a technology company to deploy a manned drone with the paramedic in the role of pilot. The paramedic could speed to the scene to make a quick assessment of the emergency, including the extent of the injuries and medical treatment required. In many cases, the paramedic – like a primary care doctor making a house call – could treat the injured at the scene, If not, an air or road ambulance would be called. The paramedic would remain on the scene before continuing on his “rounds.”
Falck isn’t the only company experimenting with the “ambulance” drone concept. Argodesign, an Austin, TX-based technology firm, is developing prototypes that also feature a single EMT functioning as the drone pilot. The company believes ambulance drones have a role to play in highway traffic accidents where car pile-ups can prevent traditional road vehicle ambulances from tending to the injured promptly. EMT-piloted drones can also land on rooftops and perform airlifts from tight locations where even conventional helicopters cannot maneuver easily.
Should ambulance drones be large enough to accommodate an entire EMT team as well as hospital transportation for the wounded? Logically, it makes sense, but an ambulance passenger drone would require a different UAV design as well as expanded regulatory approval to fly. In the current Argodesign concept, a single wounded victim would be placed in the ambulance drone and remotely piloted to a nearby hospital for treatment, without the EMT aboard. However, this raises even more medical safety issues than a passenger drone. Another possibility is that a remote pilot manages an entire fleet of ambulance passenger drones, allowing for rescue operations in large-scale disasters or accidents with multiple victims requiring hospital transport. It sounds futuristic but, in fact, the technology is already close at hand.