Center for Strategic Communication

Blackhawk medevac helicopter. Photo: Army

Blackhawk medevac helicopter. Photo: Army

It’s one of the most dangerous missions on the modern battlefield — and one of the most important. Crews flying big, vulnerable and sometimes unarmed helicopters brave gunfire, bad weather and rugged terrain to snatch wounded troops from a firefight or the scene of a bomb blast.

Medical evacuation crews are some of the gutsiest people around. But to avoid another Black Hawk Down scenario — in which the rescuers also get trapped alongside the wounded — in the hottest battle zones the Pentagon sometimes grounds the medevac copters under certain conditions. Now the Army has latched onto a possible solution: replace the human copter crews with Vertical Take Off and Landing (VTOL) drones.

That’s the thrust of the Army’s recent small business solicitation asking the industry to come up with a basic design for an “autonomous VTOL [Unmanned Aerial System] capability for critical medical item resupply and [casualty evacuation].” Companies are not required to produce a working robot. Instead, the Army wants planning documents and a “short list of VTOL UAS candidates.” The aim is, as quickly as possible, to put the pieces in place for a full-fledged, follow-on development program.

The solicitation does not specify what specific medical equipment the copter should carry, but it’s not hard to guess. Tie-downs to secure the patient inside the aircraft, for one. Also, some kind of remote telemetry for keeping tabs on the injured troop’s vital signs.

The solicitation helpfully lists the best candidates for the robot airframe, mentioning purely unmanned copters such as the Kaman K-MAX, the Northrop Grumman Fire Scout and Boeing’s A-160 Hummingbird as well as existing manned helicopters that can be modified for remote control, including Boeing’s Little Bird, the ubiquitous Sikorsky Blackhawk and EADS’ Lakota. One outlier on the list is Urban Aeronautics’ AirMule, a prototype ducted-fan ‘bot with its rotors buried inside the airframe.

Of these candidates, the K-MAX is arguably the farthest along. The Marines are already using a pair of of the twin-rotor robo-copters for resupply missions in southern Afghanistan and have been pleased with their reliability and the relative simplicity of their controls, which combine GPS navigation with remote inputs from a human operator on the ground.

Meanwhile, a Navy team led by MIT professor Missy Cummings is working on new, iPad-style controls for K-MAX and other robo-copters that could allow  any minimally trained trooper to guide an unmanned vehicle to a safe touch-down in a hot landing zone. Cummings says the new control system is specifically meant to enable robotic medical evacuation. “Your buddy took a bullet to the chest and no manned helicopter is crazy enough to land,” is how she describes the scenario.

If there’s a big potential obstacle, it’s trust. Even after more than a decade of robotic warfare, many soldiers don’t feel safe placing their lives in mechanical hands. “The problem is overcoming the natural fear of entering a vehicle without a pilot,” said Urban Aeronautics’ Janina Frankel-Yoeli. Her company’s solution is to pipe into the AirMule, via radio, the voice of a human medic — all in an effort to soothe a possibly panicked patient.

Even if the Army can’t immediately solve the patient-panic problem, robotic medical evacuation is certainly worth pursuing. Thanks in great part to human medevac crews, a wounded soldier today has a 95 percent chance of surviving. Adding robots to the evacuation mix might help save some of the five percent who slip through.