FALLS CHURCH, Va. (AFNS) —
Blood loss or “bleeding” is the leading cause of preventable death on the battlefield, according to military health experts.
Thus, one of the best ways to save lives during combat operations is to provide blood products to doctors and forward deployed personnel as soon as possible.
During the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, getting needed blood products to wounded combatants was usually not a major challenge when the US military controlled the skies and maintained a network of nearby medical facilities.
“We were quite dependent on medevac to deliver our blood,” said Air Force Col. (Dr.) Stacy Shackelford, Joint trauma system chief.
However, in future conflicts against a “near-even” opponent, Shackelford said, it could be much more difficult. Injured soldiers may have to stay on the front line for days while needing blood transfusions or other major medical treatment.
The solution: drones could become indispensable for combat medicine.
“I think it’s going to come down to drone blood delivery by some kind of unmanned vehicle that can fly around and deliver more blood or more bullets, whatever it takes,” Shackelford said.
Supply by Drones
“We believe the drone resupply of blood and urgently needed medical products is truly imminent,” said Dr. Adam Meledeo, research scientist for coagulation and blood research at the United States Army Institute of Surgical Research at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam HoustonTexas.
“There are several off-the-shelf solutions being considered,” and the Defense Health Agency is funding several other innovations to optimize the ability to deliver drones to the battlespace, Meledeo said.
Still, using drones to replenish blood and other medical supplies will be difficult.
“There are obviously trade-offs between some of these different platforms, like making sure we have a vehicle that’s fast and somewhat stealthy…and has a very large battery that will be able to keep it airborne for a period of time. much longer if he has to hang around somewhere in anticipation of a problem,” Meledeo said.
“There was also talk of outfitting some of our already-used combat hardware drones with alternative payloads that could deliver blood, medical supplies, and just about anything, like MREs, ammo, and fuel. ‘water’ to frontline doctors. or military personnel treating wounded soldiers, he explained.
“The main issue with blood replenishment is that it has to be kept at specific temperatures, much like a number of pharmaceuticals, including some painkillers and antibiotics,” Meledeo explained.
“The biggest technological hurdles right now are being able to maintain those temperatures inside those drone payloads very consistently, at different altitudes and in a variety of different ambient conditions for potentially long periods of time, without drawing too much energy from the system itself,” continued Meledeo.
The Marine Corps used drones for refueling during an exercise in Australia. Drones have also been used in Rwanda and Uganda to transport medical supplies to rural areas through mountain ranges and in bad weather, Meledeo said.
“I think we’re going to get there much faster than originally planned,” he said.
The use of drones for future peer-to-peer conflicts is beginning to seep into task forces as a potential short-term solution, he noted.
Wounded Warrior Evacuation
“Long term, there are a number of areas of effort, such as the use of drones for patient extraction,” Meledeo said.
U.S. partner nations are looking at some such platforms that can quickly evacuate a patient without risking other personnel in potentially contested airspace, he added.
How are casualties transported stealthily?
“Part of it is marking the vehicles appropriately with standard medical nomenclature. That gives you the protection of the Geneva Convention. But obviously we run into some haters who won’t care at all,” a- he explained.
Stealth technology continues to improve. When it comes to drones, “it can be just about keeping the drones low to the ground and having them piloted by an artificial intelligence system,” Meledeo explained.
“So hopefully the AI will be quicker to react than a human would be. But even still, I think there’s a lot of concern about “using drones to extract fighters wounded”.
“The long-term goal…is to have some sort of robotics on board these drones that would provide medical care to the patient during transport,” he said.
DARPA Initiative on AI
A new Advanced Defense Projects Agency initiative calledThe In the Moment programaims to give AI systems the same complex and rapid decision-making capabilities as military medical personnel and trauma surgeons who are on the battlefield based on care algorithms and decision-making capabilities .
An example is smart tourniquets that will be able to detect if they need to be released. Other auto-guided solutions include IV placement or catheter placement, Meledeo said.
“It sounds like science fiction. It’s still a bit of science fiction, but it’s not as far as it sounds,” he said.
“At least at a rudimentary level, the community is already looking for many automated solutions or AI-derived solutions for automating different medical processes.”
This research is ongoing but there is no timetable for this concept.
“Hopefully we can get reliable results from some of these different technologies that will be brought together in this system and allow the drones to not only resupply to the point of injury, but also to actually do the transport and take in charge of the patients during this transport.