During test flights held at Fort Pickett, Virginia, in August, Pittsburgh-based Near Earth Autonomy integrated its autonomous flight systems onto an L3Harris-built FVR-90 hybrid vertical take-off and landing unmanned aerial vehicle. The flights demonstrated how the drone could be used to send supplies back and forth across hundreds of miles, the companies said.
During the demonstrations, the FVR-90 and Near Earth’s systems underwent multiple scenarios to test how they could deliver supplies. Near Earth’s sensors were able to find unobstructed areas for the drone to land, according to a news release. When landing wasn’t possible, the supply pods were dropped from a low altitude or released higher up via parachutes, it said.
Research began after military personnel expressed interest in the technology, said Nathan Fisher, chief of the medical robotic and autonomous systems division at the Army’s Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center.
“They really had this desire to use UAVs as a more efficient way to resupply operational units that are kind of far forward in the field at austere environments,” Fisher said.
The autonomy systems built by Near Earth allow the unmanned aircraft to fly to designated coordinates and scan the environment using onboard sensors to determine the optimal supply delivery location, said Sanjiv Singh, the company’s CEO.
Along with the ability for vertical launch and recovery, the FVR-90 can carry a payload of up to 20 pounds inside delivery pods, said Peter Blocker, director of tactical UAS at L3Harris. This includes refrigerated pods of blood or other lightweight medical supplies.
The platform is able to fly for up to 16 hours, according to L3Harris. Additionally, the drone can travel approximately 50 miles, or even farther with a larger antenna, Blocker said.
“That’s the part that’s just amazing — being able to fly this out, say 40 or 50 miles away from wherever your supply is, and dropping it,” he said.
Researchers hope the technology will also help reduce the amount of blood wasted during operations.
“Blood is really a commodity,” Fisher said. While medics usually carry blood with them for transfusions, it’s difficult to return unused blood to banks before they go bad, he added.
With a long-endurance drone, medics could send blood either back to the blood bank or even to another medic who needs it, Singh noted.
Fisher said the Army is now looking for feedback from medics, but noted that the goal is to expand the drone’s use to non-medical logistics as well.