RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — When a drone flies to a remote clinic in southwest Virginia on Friday, it will be delivering more than medical supplies. It will also be bringing hope to an impoverished coal mining region and a glimpse into the future of delivering desperately needed medicine to some of the planet's most isolated places.
The unmanned, six-rotor aircraft is scheduled to make a series of short sorties, possibly continuing into Saturday, delivering medicines to thousands of people seeking dental and medical care at the Remote Area Medical clinic in Wise County.
The drone will deliver hundreds of pounds of supplies from a staging area to the temporary clinic set up at the county fairgrounds that is expected to treat up to 3,000 people. The drone will hover over a horse ring and lower tethered medical supplies, which are released once the package makes contact with the ground.
The Federal Aviation Administration on Tuesday authorized the drone flight, which organizers said is the first federally approved package delivery by a drone.
Rose Mooney, executive director of the Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership, calls the flight a step forward in the research of unmanned aviation — and "also dropping things out of the sky."
"Manned airplanes do that on a very limited level," Mooney said. "They certainly don't deliver packages — they fly them there, then they're unloaded."
In January 2014, Virginia Tech was named one of six federally certified drone test sites by the FAA. In February, the FAA released proposed rules that would allow commercial remote-controlled aircraft to perform routine tasks, such as aerial photography and bridge and cell tower inspections.
Worldwide sales of military and civilian drones will reach an estimated $89 billion over the next decade, according to the Teal Group, an aerospace research company in Fairfax. The FAA estimates as many as 7,500 small commercial drones will be in use within five years once the necessary regulations are in place.
Officials at the Virginia Tech drone center have coordinated the drone flight locally with J. Jack Kennedy Jr., a former state legislator who recognizes the potential for economic development in Virginia's Coalfields region. The area, he said, has double-digit unemployment and a poverty rate of about 25 percent.
"We can get in front of the curve on this particular, exponential technological growth. I view it as akin to the Internet and the cellular phone industry in the 80s," Kennedy said. He believes the mountainous, sparsely populated southwest part of the state is ideal for drone testing and could be put to practical use — monitoring natural gas pipelines, for instance.
Virginia's secretary of technology, Karen Jackson, agreed with Kennedy on the potential of drone technology. "If we get the unmanned industry right," she said, "there is a myriad of industries that are going to benefit from it. The upside potential is pretty huge."
The medical supplies are destined for a clinic that Stan Brock's Remote Area Medical Volunteer Corps establishes annually. The clinic's medical and dental volunteers are expected to treat up to 3,000 people.
Brock has also provided medical services to people in remote rain forest locations in Guyana and in a mountainous region of Haiti. He envisions a time when drones will take the place of treacherous hikes and riskier manned flights delivering emergency medical supplies.
"The application of drone delivery of medications is a no brainer," Brock said.
Steve Szkotak can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sszkotakap.