Planes, drones but no automobiles: NASA pilots pilotless plane for drug delivery

By Gareth Macdonald

- Last updated on GMT

NASA used unmanned plane to fly drugs 50km - safety pilot was present but a ground team was in control
NASA used unmanned plane to fly drugs 50km - safety pilot was present but a ground team was in control

Related tags Pharmacology

NASA has used a remote control plane and a fleet of drones to deliver drugs in an approach that could help pharma firms get medicines to patients in hard to reach locations.

The US air and space agency used an SR-22 unmanned aircraft controlled from the ground to carry around 5kg of pharmaceuticals and medical supplies 48km to an annual open air clinic for patients living in remote areas of Virginia.

From there the pharmaceuticals were separated into 24 smaller packages by NASA’s Australian partner Flirtey, which then delivered them to healthcare professionals using several of its remote piloted hexacopter drones.

The idea was to try out alternative means of delivering medicines according to Elanor Nelson from Virginia Tech's Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science.

She told us "in mountainous and rural areas like Wise County, the site of the demonstration, land routes are often substantially longer than the nearly straight-line paths available to aircraft.

"In addition, roads in these areas are sometimes unpaved or poorly maintained—and become extremely dangerous or even impassable during floods or snowstorms. In these cases, it is much faster—and safer—to use small unmanned aircraft to transport urgently-needed medical supplies​." 

Nelson added that, although she could not speak for drug companies, "healthcare providers we worked with in Wise County are very enthusiastic about the possibility of using this technology to deliver medical supplies to their patients​."

Frank Jones, deputy director of NASA Langley's Research Services Directorate, said the trial was the longest flight attempted so far.

"We flew the aircraft remotely beyond visual line of sight for the first time from a portable ground station. We had remotely piloted it a number of times at NASA Langley using our permanent ground station, but this allowed us to demonstrate a new capability that we can use to test unmanned mission concepts and aircraft technologies in a remote location​."

Drugs by drone

The decision to choose a pharmaceutical cargo highlights “the humanitarian possibilities of this technology​” according to Virginia Senator, Mark Warner who said it “will position Virginia as a leader in this burgeoning field​."

Whether the NASA project will really give Virginia leadership of the field of humanitarian logistics is unclear.

Google X – the search giant’s R&D wing – is said to be still working on using drones for delivery despite initial setbacks.​ Amazon is also working on a similar technology.

NASA did not respond to a request for comment ahead of publication.

The air and space agency has something of a track record of applying new technologies to pharmaceutical problems. In 2013​, it began working on using 3D printing – also known as additive manufacturing – to make drugs during long space flights.

Prior to that NASA had already examine the impact of space flight on vaccines​ and on the dissolution characteristics of pharmaceutical pills, in project it told us at the time had implications for terrestrial drug delivery​.

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