Employment of robotically assisted surgery to intelligently conduct invasive or non-invasive medical procedures has become a mainstay in operating rooms around the world. This technology was developed to provide a uniform and precise standard for the purpose of reducing or eliminating surgically instigated tissue trauma associated with human hand tremors and/or lesser skilled surgeons.

Whether the surgeon is remotely conducting a cardiac bypass operation from the next room or remotely replacing a kidney in Texas while sitting in Massachusetts, robotically assisted surgery has revolutionized the way doctors and surgeons master their given craft.

What if the same robotic reliability and quality assurance could be applied to the emergency medical ambulatory process?

Imagine the implementation of an unmanned aerial system (UAS) capable of vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) designated for on-call medical evacuation scenarios on the battlefield and in areas considered too remote or austere for traditional aeromedical evacuation helicopters like the US Army’s infamous “Dust Off”.

These same VTOL UAS could also conduct covert re-supply behind enemy lines, provide on-target fire support, or delivery of high value individuals, prisoners and time sensitive intelligence packages resulting from post assault site sensitive explorations.

Very much like a surgeon who remotely performs precision surgery from across the country, VTOL UAS such as the A160 Hummingbird, K-max or Fire Scout would be remotely piloted in real time from either a tactical forward operating base (FOB) or a strategic command located at home in the United States.

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Utilizing beyond line of sight (BLOS) data link, they can aptly maneuver inside Afghanistan’s many valleys and can move across the high-altitude terrain at the slow speeds necessary for certain surveillance full motion video cameras and radar sensors.

While the concept of robots carrying wounded from the battlefield sounds exciting, the realization of this endeavor will rely heavily on the degree to which the human operator can be relieved of otherwise manual flight management tasks.

Northrop Grumman MQ-8B Navy Fire Scout
Northrop Grumman MQ-8B Navy Fire Scout

Even with the most highly advanced helicopter automation tools, a dedicated operator with “eyes on” or visual contact with the VTOL UAS is essential to the successful launch and recovery for every mission.

With these current limitations, a command and control element at the casualty evacuation site would be required to possess the requisite skill and technology (via synched man-portable terminal…?) to safely assume line of site (LOS) remote command and control of the VTOL UAS to ensure a safe landing, loading and mid-mission re-launch. Once airborne with casualties onboard, the primary pilot would recapture control of the UAS via satellite and remotely pilot it back to base.

Efforts to mitigate these current technical obstacles include improvements to GPS navigation in order to better negotiate concealed or denied environments, obstacle and collision avoidance radar, real-time near-optimal automated pilot guidance, real-time on-board image-based guidance, autonomous autorotation, and autonomous mission interoperability software capable of interfacing and participating in multi manned and/or unmanned operations.

So far, SOCOM is the principal organization apparently eager to explore, embrace and potentially validate a UAS VTOL capability as an operational requirement.

Because I spend so much time in the UAS arena, I am already trying to raise the bar. Imagine a UAS pilot and flight surgeon sitting next to each other at the controls inside a Ground Control Station. The pilot is remotely piloting the VTOL UAS while the surgeon remotely performs surgery in transit to base…

(Photo Credits: Boeing, Northrop Grumman)