RICHMOND — The sprawling field hospital that springs up in rural southwest Virginia every summer has been called the largest health-care outreach operation of its kind.
This year, the event may have another first.
Unmanned aerial vehicles — drones — are supposed to deliver medicine to the Wise County Fairgrounds in part to study how the emerging technology would be used in humanitarian crises around the world.
Organizers expect the July 17 flights to the Remote Area Medical clinic to make history as the first federally approved package deliveries in the United States.
For years, drones used in military operations have been lambasted by critics as unnecessarily killing civilians and desensitizing pilots to the loss of human life.
Pairing the technology with the feel-good RAM clinic — where residents of central Appalachia, starved for health care, often camp out for days for the chance to see a dentist or doctor — could cast drones in a new light.
Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) will be there to trumpet the cause.
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“The governor keeps talking about the new Virginia economy,” said Karen R. Jackson, McAuliffe’s secretary of technology. “Unmanned systems is a part of that. Obviously drones have been used in the military for many, many years. But from a commercial standpoint, these have the opportunity to rewrite how we do the movement of goods.”
In addition to demystifying commercial drones and opening the door to economic development, supporters say the technology would make sense in Wise County.
As executive director of the Health Wagon, Teresa Owens Gardner runs two stationary health-care clinics and a mobile unit that travels to remote locations. Once the clinics are in place, if she runs out of supplies, there’s no way to retrieve more from stockpiles that lie hours away.
“They’ve got the medication. We’ve got the patients. I’ve got patients dying without medication,” said Gardner, who brought RAM to Virginia. “[Drones] could really be game-changing and increase access and save lives.”
On the day of the test flight — called “Let’s Fly Wisely” — a NASA aircraft would carry prescriptions for 20 people from the Tazewell County Airport to Lonesome Pine Airport in Wise County. A pilot would be on board in case the plan goes haywire, but otherwise it would be controlled by remote stations on the ground.
Next, the drugs would be loaded onto a special-delivery drone made by the Australian company Flirtey and flown about a mile to the fairgrounds, where the cargo will be lowered to the ground.
Federal Aviation Administration approval is pending; the agency did not return calls for comment this week.
The research flights are being coordinated by the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership, which was formed in 2013 after the FAA chose Virginia Tech to study how to safely fly drones in U.S. airspace. Virginia Tech is working with the University of Maryland and Rutgers University in New Jersey.
Jon Greene, MAAP acting associate director, said drones could one day be expected to be used in sectors such as agriculture, mining and infrastructure inspection, but not until the FAA figures out how to police the industry.
“It’s a real challenge for them,” said Greene, who is also associate director of Virginia Tech’s Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science. “This technology has snuck up on a lot of people. The FAA, to their credit, has delivered us the safest airspace in the world — and also the busiest.”
McAuliffe signed a law that went into effect Wednesday that says law enforcement officers must seek a warrant before using a drone in an investigation, adding Virginia to the list of only 11 states that do so, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia.
But the rule doesn’t apply to the use of unmanned aircraft systems by private businesses.
J. Jack Kennedy Jr., Wise County circuit court clerk, said the program is the start of a movement that could transform southwest Virginia, which has struggled to recover from the loss of coal mining jobs.
He called the drone test flight a “Kitty Hawk moment not only for a small county in Virginia but for the nation,” referring to the Wright brothers’ first successful airplane flights in 1903.
“Isn’t it amazing that a small rural county in economic distress because of the move away from fossil fuels and one that’s stereotyped as being of poor health and economic condition gets to step forward and gets to change the whole dynamic?”