Telemedical Drone Project takes off

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BOLTON — A young woman crouches beside a Coleman tent in a cold airport hangar. Megan wears Google Glass on her eyes and blue rubber gloves on her hands, and she breathes heavily as she cuts through the T-shirt of a friend who has just been shot.

In her ear, a doctor calmly instructs her to walk over to the large first-aid kit a drone has just dropped. She finds a seal for her friend’s chest wound. The entire exercise is a collaboration by the doctor, who sees everything Megan does through Google Glass, working as the brain and Megan, the one able body on the scene, acting as the manpower.

Megan is not real, and neither was the mass-shooting scenario. But the technology demonstrated by this scene at John Bell Williams Airport Tuesday is very close to becoming a reality, thanks to another unique collaboration between William Carey University College of Osteopathic Medicine and Hinds Community College’s unmanned aviation (a.k.a. drone) program.

The Health Integrated Rescue Operations project, also known as HiRO, is the first program in the United States designed to use drones to drop first aid and to connect doctors with people on the ground using telemedicine.

“We feel this is a true Mississippi story,” said Dr. Italo Subbarao, a dean at William Carey University College of Osteopathic Medicine.

Dennis Lott, Hinds Community College's Unmanned Aircraft Systems Program director, discusses the potential for life-saving medical drones during a live telemedicine demonstration at the John Bell Williams airport in Bolton Dec. 6, 2016.

Rogelio V. Solis/AP

Dennis Lott, Hinds Community College’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Program director, discusses the potential for life-saving medical drones during a live telemedicine demonstration at the John Bell Williams airport Tuesday in Bolton.

The goal of the project is to send medical supplies into areas where first responders might face a delay reaching victims. A mass shooting with an active shooter, such as this summer’s attack at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, is one. A second is natural disasters.

The genesis of the program came in the aftermath of the massive tornado that struck Hattiesburg in February 2013. Frustrated that this technology existed but hadn’t been implemented, Subbarao said he and a student, Paul Cooper, who has an affinity for drones, began working together to develop the system.

Within a year, they had a working prototype. But the project didn’t really take off, so to speak, until Subbarao connected with Dennis Lott, who runs the unmanned aviation program at Hinds.

“It’s not so much a stroke of luck as divine intervention. We have this program where we know how to make drones fly. (Subbarao’s) a doctor. So they don’t know this, but they do know medicine. And Paul is just a geeky kind of guy who liked drones and was able to take basic information and get drones to fly,” Lott said with a smile.

Given its original approach to saving lives, HiRO has attracted notice at the state and federal levels. Rick Patrick, a first responder coordinator for the Department of Homeland Security, said the project’s genius lies in its simplicity.

“A lot of people might say, ‘Well, that’s really basic. A kindergartner could come up with that. But you know if that’s the case we wouldn’t have half the people dying, dying,” Patrick said.

In the moments after a mass shooting, the central goal is to control blood loss. Ninety percent of deaths in these scenarios occur before victims get to care. But in half of these deaths, people can live anywhere from two minutes to two hours after the injury has occurred. And, according to Patrick, the people most likely to administer life-saving first aid on the scene, are not trained responders, but anyone who happens to be nearby.

“The reality of the lives that can be saved with these initiatives and this assistance is untold,” Patrick said. “… No one should die from uncontrolled bleeding.”

But for HiRO to truly work, Subbarao said another level of coordination is needed, to integrate this new system with existing 911 systems. Lee Smithson, director of the Mississippi Emergency Management Association, said HiRO could easily play an essential role in his organization’s disaster relief operations.

“The key thing about this is not the technology, though the technology is great. What’s key about this is the collaboration,” said Lee Smithson, director of the Mississippi Emergency Management Association. “When in the past would you see two colleges together, working hand in hand? You’d see them competing with one another.”

The next step for getting the program off the ground is the backing of the Federal Aviation Administration.

Currently, the FAA requires the remote pilot and person manipulating flight controls to maintain uninterrupted sight of small unmanned aircraft such as drones.

“The FAA is working really hard to stay on top of this. … We see as we develop a great collaboration between manned and unmanned aerial systems,” Smithson said.