[Editor’s Note: John’s Hopkins pathologist, Tim Amukele, believes that in five years every major hospital will be using drones.]
LOWER TOWNSHIP — As a large crowd watched from the second floor of the Cape May Lewes Ferry building, a delivery drone took off in brisk winds from the lawn and headed out over the Delaware Bay.
It carried a box of simulated medical blood, urine and stool samples, and landed about half a nautical mile away on a small barge rocking on the waters just outside the Cape May Canal.
“This is the first FAA-approved drone delivery flight in history, from ship to shore,” said Matt Sweeny, CEO of the Nevada-based drone delivery service Flirtey, which was providing the service.
The simulation was a joint effort of nonprofits, private companies, the Federal Aviation Administration, Cape May County government and several New Jersey higher education institutions interested in how drones can help in emergency or disaster response.
Despite 18-knot winds, the drone landed successfully on the barge, as if landing on a medical ship, and returned to its takeoff spot loaded with simulated medicines.
“In five years, every major hospital will be using drones, much like they now use ambulances. It will be one more piece of the fabric,” said Johns Hopkins pathologist Tim Amukele, who works on clinical trials on mostly HIV drugs in Africa.
But the drones have to be made more robust.
“They can’t carry as much as we need to put on them,” Amukele said.
He works closely with Jeff Street, an unmanned aircraft systems engineer dedicated to the pathology department.
“For the past couple of years, we have been investigating the effect on the samples (of flying via drone),” said Street. “We have shown it’s possible to transport them in good condition, including blood for transfusion.”
After the ship-to-shore demonstration, Rutgers University professor Javier Diez and Ph.D. candidate Marco Maia, of Westfield, Union County, showed how specialized drones they developed can fly over water, then dive and travel underwater.
The crowd erupted into applause for both performances.
“One of my interests is, can it be used for bridge inspections?” asked Patrick Szary, associate director of Rutgers University’s Center for Advanced Infrastructure and Transportation. “We have a lot of aging infrastructure.”
He said bridge supports must be inspected underwater for scoring — damage caused by tidal action that sends sand and salt over them like sandpaper. Underwater drones equipped with cameras could make such inspections easier, safer and quicker, he said.
Diez said such drones also could be used for faster search-and-rescue operations in open seas and waterways, and to perform lifeguarding operations and assess environmental incidents such as oil spills.
But he said funding is always an issue, and funding levels will determine how quickly such drones can be put to practical use.
The lead agency for the event was the Field Innovation Team, a 501(c)3 corporation that will conduct a “Do Tank” design thinking workshop Thursday at the ferry terminal.
Several United Nations staff members were at the demonstration Wednesday and will participate in the workshop to focus on the humanitarian use of drones in disasters.
FIT was founded in 2010 by Desiree Matel-Anderson, who hosted the event Wednesday. FIT describes itself as empowering disaster survivors to find cutting-edge solutions to problems.
FIT partnered with the New Jersey Institute of Technology, the New Jersey Innovation Institute, The Delaware River and Bay Authority, Cape May County, Atlantic Cape Community College, Flirtey, Johns Hopkins Hospital, Luftronix, Rutgers University, Southern Alberta Institute of Technology, Splunk Inc. and Simulyze to make the workshop happen. Learn more at fieldinnovationteam.org.