Can Drones Carry Masks and Protective Gear in Eastern Kentucky?

After weeks of testing, training and lots of data, a drone carrying a small package containing hand sanitizer, gloves, a spray bottle and other essentials was delivered to a home in Perry County on the 16th. December.

“It was a great moment after several months of preparation, grant writing and data collection,” said Bart Massey, executive director of USA Drone Port, a Hazard-based nonprofit that helped lead the multi-agency pilot project to see if drones could provide personal protection. equipment in remote and hard-to-reach areas of eastern Kentucky.

Nine other people in the eastern Kentucky area are expected to obtain similar packages via a drone as part of the University of Kentucky-funded study called the “Jericho Project.”

“We hope to be completed by the end of February or April at the latest,” said Chris Stiles, director of operations for USA Drone Port.

But the Jericho Project could be expanded to a much larger area and for many other uses, those involved in the study said.

Flooding, snow and severe storms can make roads in the more remote areas of eastern Kentucky impassable. Some people do not have reliable access to transportation. Drones could be used in the future to deliver medicine to people who cannot leave their homes, Massey said.

“It could be used to provide insulin or batteries for home oxygen tanks,” Massey said.

The Jericho Project is being watched by other groups across the country, said Ellen Hahn, director of the UK Center for Appalachian Research in Environmental Sciences, known as UK CARES, and professor of nursing at the university. UK CARES funded the project. The UK has not disclosed the amount of this funding.

“I think it’s exciting, and I think it’s new,” Hahn said. “And I think people across the country are sort of watching us to see what’s going on with this project.”

How the Jericho project started

In Washington, DC, for a conference the week of March 10, Massey noticed that Reagan National Airport was nearly deserted as states began to close and air traffic was extremely limited.

With air traffic and other transportation networks operating at minimal capacity and people urged to stay home and away from others, drones could play a vital role in a coronavirus response, Massey thought when flying back to Kentucky.

“We went back to Kentucky and we wondered how do we do something to help those at risk – to provide packages for people with diabetes who need insulin or batteries for their wheelchairs? Massey said. “We contacted the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration), we spoke to the National Guard. No one really had an answer for us legally how to do it, the methodology or anything.

Massey launched Drone Port four years ago. To date, working with Hazard Community and Technical College, Drone Port has trained 125 people aboard unmanned aircraft, creating much-needed jobs and skills training in a region decimated by lost coal jobs. These 125 people are now using this training in search and rescue, power line and railroad surveying, and photography. Drone Port has also written 11 different books on drones and unmanned aircraft.

Massey and others tried to secure federal funding in the first round of coronavirus relief to study the idea, but that effort was unsuccessful.

Enter the UK.

Robert Donovan, a friend of Massey’s, was a board member of the UK Center of Excellence for Rural Health and suggested Massey talk about the project in the UK.

Fran Feltner, director of the UK’s Center of Excellence for Rural Health in Hazard, said community health workers in the centre’s Homeplace program, which serves 30 rural counties, were immediately receptive to the pilot.

“Community health workers do huge things, beyond what you would normally hear in health care, to reach people, access their medicines, access the things they need, like ramps for the disabled, housing repairs and transportation, ”Feltner said. . “When you live in rural Kentucky you often have to be inventive to find solutions for the population you serve, and so for me that was a perfect match. ”

Meanwhile, during a March consultative meeting for UK CARES, healthcare workers reported that many people in eastern Kentucky are not taking COVID-19 seriously. Gloves, hand sanitizer, and other cleaning supplies were in high demand but scarce at the time.

“They did not have access to personal protective equipment like masks, gloves and disinfectant wipes,” Hahn said. “Knowing that there are a lot of remote areas in this part of the state, we started putting two and two together.”

With funding from UK CARES, community health workers from Homeplace and technical know-how and drones from USA Drone Port, the project was launched.

Home health workers worked with USA Drone Port to identify clients who needed services. Two Homeplace employees have already been trained as “visual observers” to help drone pilots land packages full of PPE for customers.

Homeplace staff also work with these customers on how this personal protective equipment works.

“Whatever we take – hand sanitizers or masks – not only are we going to provide it to our customers, but we are going to train them in their proper use. If you don’t use it properly, it’s no good, ”said Mace Baker, Director of Homeplace.

Future use of drones in Eastern Kentucky

Data from the Jericho Pilot will hopefully be used to leverage more grants to show how drones can be used to deliver much-needed health supplies to a larger area, Massey said.

Many commercial companies have done similar studies and trials, but these studies typically focus on dense, flatter areas that are easier to navigate and have more customers. There has been little to no research on rural and mountainous areas, Stiles said.

“We started with the tough one,” Stiles said.

This first delivery on December 16 was in a hollow between two mountains.

“Future deliveries will be more difficult,” Massey said.

Hahn is hoping the drones could also be used to do other research in eastern Kentucky.

“This could provide a cost-effective way to conduct future air, water and soil sampling for environmental health studies,” Hahn said.

Feltner, from the UK’s Center of Excellence for Rural Health, said the Jericho Project also proves that big, bold ideas don’t always come from big cities.

“You hear about all of these things that are happening in big cities, and you don’t necessarily hear about inventions and innovative things in rural Kentucky,” Feltner said, “If we can be at the forefront of innovation, I think that’s just a great goal to achieve between all of us.

Beth Musgrave covered government and politics for the Herald-Leader for over a decade. A graduate of Northwestern University, she worked as a reporter in Kentucky, Indiana, Mississippi, Illinois and Washington DC

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