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Bridging the Great Health Divide | Using drones to save lives

Technology could be the answer to getting life-saving medication to isolated areas in rural Kentucky.
Published: Mar. 25, 2021 at 3:00 PM EDT
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Editor’s Note: This story is another installment in WKYT’s year-long effort to examine how health disparities in the Appalachian region are being addressed, as part of Gray Television’s ‘Bridging the Great Health Divide: Mississippi Delta and Appalachia,’ an initiative exploring why disparities exist in those regions and focusing on long-term and sustainable solutions.

HINDMAN, Ky. (WKYT) - With mountains, hollows, creeks and streams, and winding roads, the terrain and topography of many of Kentucky’s Appalachian counties already make it harder to get around.

And in the past few weeks it has become even more obvious how ice and snow - and terrible flooding - can further isolate, if not completely cut off, parts of eastern Kentucky.

But while some see these mountains as obstacles, to others they are opportunities. Several organizations in the region have teamed up to test how technology can make a difference in those situations.

An aerial view of a PPE-carrying drone mid-flight.
An aerial view of a PPE-carrying drone mid-flight.(Video courtesy: USA Drone Port)

In drones they have found a tool that could help bridge the ‘great health divide’ - or even just fly over it.

“Project Jericho Flight No. 3,” says Chris Stiles, operations director for USA Drone Port, reading through a checklist as he performs the pre-flight briefing. “Flight conditions: Daytime. Geographic area: Rural.”

[MORE: Bridging the Great Health Divide in Appalachian Kentucky]

It is a chilly February morning, and on this day a crew from USA Drone Port and a community health worker from Kentucky Homeplace gathered on a hilltop in Knott County.

They, along with the University of Kentucky Center for Appalachian Research in Environmental Sciences (UK-CARES) from the UK Center of Excellence in Rural Health, are working together on the Jericho Project to explore drone deliveries of personal protective equipment, or PPE, to people in Appalachia.

On this day, the group is facing a new test: its first “blind” flight.

A satellite view of the approximate path the drone flew from a mountaintop to a home in a hollow.
A satellite view of the approximate path the drone flew from a mountaintop to a home in a hollow.(Satellite image: Google)

“The challenge really is - it’s the first flight doing it, so getting sight of the house from our vantage point, because we didn’t know what the house even looked like beyond satellite top view,” Stiles explained to WKYT’s Garrett Wymer. “So really guesstimating from here to hit the house, in that direction it’s 1500 feet with a lot of trees and stuff in the way, so it’s not visually like you can see it yourself.”

Stiles is a former military drone pilot with 11,000 hours of flight time. He takes the controls and the drone takes off, towing a bag of masks, gloves and sanitizer at the end of a rope hanging below it.

The drone rises from the launch pad to an altitude of about 50 feet.
The drone rises from the launch pad to an altitude of about 50 feet.(Video courtesy: USA Drone Port)

But this is not just about PPE, as important as it is. USA Drone Port is conducting these as test flights to collect data for the Federal Aviation Administration, or FAA.

This delivery is going to a home just 1,500 feet away as the drone flies, and about 400 feet down. It is a quick flight.

Getting there by car, though, is not quite so simple. It is a 10-minute drive - at least - down winding rural roads.

A time lapse of part of the drive down a winding rural road to the delivery site.
A time lapse of part of the drive down a winding rural road to the delivery site.(WKYT)

“Right now we’re just doing small things like PPE, gloves and sanitizer, but we would like to eventually be able to do bigger packages and maybe even medicines,” said Chyna Smith, a community health worker with Kentucky Homeplace. “So that could really help out in our communities.”

Unfortunately, it did not take long for Mother Nature to show exactly why.

[APPALACHIA RISES: Donate to eastern Kentucky flood relief]

The rain started later that afternoon.

A few short days later, much of the region was flooded, covered and completely cut off - devastating proof of why the mission commander said these test flight scenarios are vital.

A time lapse of part of the drone's flight to deliver PPE in an isolated area.
A time lapse of part of the drone's flight to deliver PPE in an isolated area.(Video courtesy: USA Drone Port)

“I think this was much closer to reality than any of the ones we’ve done before,” said Bart Massey, executive director of USA Drone Port. “We’re going to continue to progress that direction with all these.”

Despite the challenges, on this day they hit the target, dropping off their package and collecting important data while doing it.

A community health worker detaches a package of PPE delivered by drone.
A community health worker detaches a package of PPE delivered by drone.(Video courtesy: USA Drone Port)

Altogether drone test flights like these are helping make more progress in the pandemic and beyond by delivering PPE today, maybe medicine tomorrow and, perhaps just as importantly, hope throughout this region.

[MORE: WKYT Investigates]

A handful of test flights still remain for the Jericho Project. They are flying farther distances and also testing out fully-automated, pre-programmed flights.

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