The US Army reports that researchers at its Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center (TATRC) at Fort Detrick, Maryland, are using the DP-14 ‘Heavy Fuel Tandem Helicopter’ as a test bed to develop the concepts that may one day be used to provide medical supply delivery and medical evacuation capabilities using an unmanned aerial system. The service said it is looking at using unmanned systems as a possible ‘plan B’ for when the ideal solution (a fully-equipped medical evacuation aircraft with a trained crew and pilot) isn't possible.
Nathan Fisher, a TATRC engineer, explained: “There’s really a lot of opportunity to be gained if we learn how to leverage these unmanned systems for medical missions, as a tool to augment our existing medical assets.”
The researchers at TATRC are developing solutions for a future where soldiers on the battlefield have few or no lines of communication with those in the rear. “In situations where we’re up against a near-peer type adversary in a complex environment, like in a megacity for example – we’re tasked to support these dispersed units from a medical perspective,” Fisher said. “It boils down to a situation where air superiority is not something that we can assume. At least not for an extended period of time. So how do we support these units from a medical perspective?”
Two types of support are being considered. First, how to get medical supplies out to the field if no aircraft or crew are available, or if the flying conditions won’t permit it. Second, how to get wounded soldiers from the field back to treatment facilities in the rear without using manned aircraft. TATRC is utilising the DP-14 to work out the issues associated with unmanned resupply and unmanned medical evacuation. Fisher said the dual-rotor machine was chosen because, among other things, it can carry a 450-pound (200-kg) payload, has a small footprint and perform vertical take-offs and landings.
Fisher noted that the Army is yet to fly a human inside its DP-14, and may never do so, as flying persons inside unmanned systems is not currently permitted in the US.
One of the things TATRC is working on now, Fisher said, is instrumenting the DP-14 to determine what conditions might be like inside the UAS if a patient were to ride inside it. The aim, he explained, is to determine whether a UAS like the DP-14 can be built to support human life while in the air. The researchers are using a system dubbed the Environmental Factors Data Acquisition System to measure factors such as shock, vibration, noise, temperature, pressure, acceleration, and pitch of the aircraft, which all affect how safe it will be to put a person inside. He said a similar test will be done on the UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter, which is already used to conduct medical evacuations, to establish a baseline for what is permissible.
Flying a patient inside a UAS will also require a patient-support system to be available, said Fisher, and that system will need to transmit patient data to caregivers on the ground. The project includes work to developing such systems, or configure existing systems for UAS use.
The Army also stated that use of a UAS for casevac or supply delivery could become a burden on the Army medics who are most likely to be its primary users. “Kind of the general problem that we run into is that you have a combat medic out there in the field providing care,” Fisher said, “and they are really focused on the patient and they need to remain focused on the patient, both cognitively and with the use of their hands. How do you introduce technology in that environment without diverting attention away from providing care?”
Therefore, the UAS must be truly autonomous, Fisher said, such that the medic only interacts with it in a ‘supervisory role’. He suggested that the kinds of interaction a medic might need to have with the vehicle would be limited to something as simple as providing an indicator that it’s safe for the UAS to land versus waving it off.