For drone delivery to make sense, with existing capabilities of drones, the cargo needs to be relatively light, it needs to have tremendous value, and it needs to urgently travel the last mile by air. This is why, to the extent we’ve seen drones used for delivery in the wild, it’s more likely as a means to carry contraband into a prison than it is a practical alternative to the postal service.
But there’s one other cargo that fits the description, and that’s blood itself.
Defense Innovation Unit Experimental, the Pentagon’s stand-up Silicon Valley-focused acquisition house, is looking for a drone that can carry a modest cargo of blood, through the dark of night toward where it’s most needed. Call it “Dronesferatu.”
The specs of the solicitation from the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental -- the ability to deliver a 5-pound package over 100 kilometers in “austere environments” -- strongly suggest that they’re looking at an unmanned aerial vehicle system that supports refrigeration or other means of temperature control.
“These deliveries, ideally automated, will provide essential items to critically wounded military personnel as quickly as possible after an injury occurs,” the April 23 solicitation states. “Ability to sustain a very high frequency of operations over an extended period of time is critical. Speed of delivery, reliability and robustness to failure and interference, response time, and overall delivery throughput are critical.”
Getting the right blood to the right people as fast as possible means saving lives. To that end, DARPA’s funded research into metabolic rate reduction to see if there’s a way to make people bleed out more slowly, or into using female hormones to similarly prolong the survivable time without transfusion. In 2013, the U.S. Army conducted a study on pre-hospital transfusion for battlefield casualties being medically evacuated in Afghanistan, and in 2012 Canadian Blood Services even tested the viability of paratroopers transporting blood for transfusion.
Consider blood drones complementary to this field of work. Early tests by researchers at Johns Hopkins and Uganda’s Makerere University proved that small vials of blood transported by drone were just as viable as blood transported by car. Those same researchers followed up with a test of blood delivery from ship-to-shore, for possible use in response to coastal areas hit by natural disasters, where the roads are impassable but drones could still safely fly. The American startup Zipline demonstrated its own blood delivery drones in 2016, and has for a year and a half worked on delivering blood by robot to parts of Rwanda.
DIUx’s ask, that a drone fly over 60 miles and carry 5 pounds of blood, is not far off from what Zipline’s drones can already do, with the company stating a range of 100 miles and a cargo capacity of just under four pounds. Weight and range tradeoffs are at the heart of aviation design, so it’s likely that vendors have already pitched something within the bounds of the solicitation. Should that drone make a fast turnaround from ask to prototype to useful tool, the troops fighting abroad may gain a better shot at surviving otherwise-fatal blood loss. Unlikely that the reverse-vampire drones will look like bats, though.