December 13, 2023 546 PM
PRESIDIO — Last Friday morning, a small crowd gathered behind the Preventative Care Health Services clinic in Presidio shielding their eyes from the sun as a drone whirred overhead. There were cheers and applause as it touched down, kicking up dust as it went.
Local officials hope this may be the future of healthcare in Presidio. Along with a network of dreamers at the cutting edge of drone technology and healthcare, they’ve been working to experiment with ways to close the region’s dramatic gaps in healthcare access.
Representatives from Swoop Aero — a company based in Australia — operated the drone. Swoop Aero has made waves recently for transporting life-saving vaccines, medications and test samples in underserved areas of sub-Saharan Africa.
Over the past few years, Swoop Aero drones have delivered vaccines that reached more than 67,000 people in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In Mozambique, test sample pickups and vaccine drop-offs reached around 100,000 people to help combat the tuberculosis and COVID-19 pandemics.
Swoop Aero Growth Manager Annabelle Bennett made the long overseas trip to test out the same technology in Presidio. She felt the community was a great fit for the company’s programs, given how they’d been implemented in Africa and in her home country of Australia. “I think the landscape in terms of the vast distances and the difficulty in access to infrastructure, services and supplies is similar to what we see in Australia,” she said.
Bennett and her team were invited to the Big Bend through the Matador UAS (Unmanned Aircraft System) Consortium, a public-private partnership between drone companies, private donors and other entities interested in advancing healthcare via unmanned flight.
The consortium has roots at Texas Tech University’s Health Science Center (TTUHSC), which has provided Presidians with innovative guidance for years — the university is currently working with the city’s EMS crew to connect local first responders with more experienced emergency personnel onboard ambulances via Starlink.
Phil Sizer, a leader at TTUHSC for 33 years, was excited about what the future might hold for Presidio — and other rural communities without access to a full range of healthcare services. The TTUHSC serves 108 communities, among which 75% of the total population are considered medically underserved.
Sizer said that experts have long thought that telehealth is the wave of the future for rural communities. The reality is that telehealth still requires patients to travel to get tests and medication. “What we’re doing is closing the gap between the practitioner, the clinician and the patient,” he explained.
The drone that touched down in Presidio on Friday can carry up to 12 pounds — in terms of pills and vials of blood, 12 pounds can make a huge dent in the clinic’s workload. It can travel 200 feet above the ground and is currently approved to travel at 86 miles per hour, but the TTUHSC team is hoping that that number will soon break 100.
Ty Harmon, co-founder of the Matador UAS Consortium, explained that drones are legally regulated by the FAA, or Federal Aviation Administration. Though drones have been operating in many industries in the U.S. for at least a decade, the law is still catching up with their technical capabilities. “The goal is, ‘How can we combine what is safe and trusted by the FAA with what is demonstrated everyday in Africa?’” he explained. “And how can we bring that to strengthen our communities here in the states?”
For now, Swoop Aero is only authorized to fly its drone along the mostly-abandoned rail line that connects Alpine with the border, minimizing risk of collisions with people or other vehicles.
The law is not the only factor limiting the immediate implementation of drone flight in the Big Bend. In trying to plot a course between Alpine and Presidio, Swoop Aero’s team quickly realized that the ruggedness of the terrain was the most extreme they’d ever encountered.
Last week’s flight was a practice round of sorts for the team. Because the route between Alpine and Presidio — the route needed to actually transport medication and labs most efficiently — required a complexity of GPS programming beyond what the team had ever done before, they shortened the trip and started in Marfa. “We have a significant number of twists and turns,” Bennett said.
The team is hoping that the technology will catch up quickly to make the possibility of regular drone flight in the Big Bend a reality, though they don’t have a solid timeline for when that will happen. “We’re the Wright brothers flying a brand-new aircraft,” Harmon said. “We’re hoping we’re going to build Delta Airlines in about two years.”