By Joe Garvey

David Bowles, executive director of Old Dominion University’s Virginia Institute for Spaceflight & Autonomy (VISA), sees enormous potential in a new initiative that would use drones to deliver critical medical supplies on the Eastern Shore and Tangier Island.

“When you can do something where you can really touch people’s lives, and potentially improve outcomes for people, it’s very exciting,” he said.

VISA, Riverside Health System, Virginia Beach-based DroneUp and the Accomack-Northampton Planning District Commission are partners on a $1.877 million federal Department of Transportation grant that funds the project. They conducted a kickoff event on May 3 at Wallops Island that was attended by more than 100 people.

The project was one of 59 proposals awarded funding through the Strengthening Mobility and Revolutionizing Transportation (SMART) Grants Program out of a nationwide pool of 389 applications. This project was the only application in Virginia to be awarded a SMART Grant during the inaugural year of the program.

The first phase of the project, which is expected to start around June 1, will consist of prototyping and planning. Riverside will begin utilizing medical cargo drones from DroneUp to test and plan for the delivery of prescriptions to patients living in rural areas on the Eastern Shore and on Tangier Island. During the launch of the project, Riverside will focus on delivering hypertension medications. The Eastern Shore has a higher preponderance of hypertension than the rest of the state.

“DroneUp, based in Virginia Beach, is an incredible partner bringing extensive knowledge and credibility to this project. They have stepped right in to help our region and to build a wonderful partnership with ODU and our team,” said John Costulis, VISA deputy director.  

Man speaking at podium
David Bowles, executive director of ODU's Virginia Institute for Spaceflight & Autonomy, speaks at a kickoff event for the project on May 3 at Wallops Island. Photo Jessica Zimmerman/ODU

VISA’s role in this project will be overall project management; health outcomes modeling, analysis and simulation working with the Hampton Roads Biomedical Research Consortium’s Interim Executive Director Heather Richter and her team; and workforce development in support of the Accomack-Northampton Planning District Commission, which submitted the grant application.

“We have to say, is this really feasible and worthwhile and sustainable if you turn it into a business operation?” Bowles said. “And that’s what we really want to do with this grant – work through some of the technical problems with actually flying drones beyond the visual line of sight. And then looking to see if we are having a positive impact on people’s health. Lastly, seeing if there is a sustainable business model to make this whole thing work. Those three things, we’ll collect data on as we progress through this grant.”

Bowles said this project “could be a gamer-changer.”

“I’ve been living on the Eastern Shore for three years, and it’s beautiful,” he said. “But it is also very rural, and there are a lot of people living at levels where they just don’t have access to reliable and frequent transportation. It’s amazing the number of people you see walking, whether it’s to the grocery store or the pharmacy or wherever. It’s eye-opening when you come from a much more populated urban area.”

It could particularly be impactful for Tangier Island, which could see times for medication delivery reduced from a day or two to a matter of hours, Bowles said.

VISA has been a leader in initiating and building this partnership. The team and initial concept of operations date to September 2022 and grew out of the Virginia Innovation Partnership Corp.’s (VIPC) interest in using “Drones for Good” as well as a Growth and Opportunity Virginia-ReInvent Hampton Roads planning grant that is exploring autonomous systems routes and corridors in the region. The project was backed by $75,000 in start-up funding from VIPC and a $100,000 Unmanned Systems Planning Grant from ReInvent Hampton Roads.

Elaine Meil, executive director of the Accomack-Northampton Planning District Commission, said VISA approached her group about the project last fall.

“We thought it was a practical plan to solve these real problems of geography and health,” she said at the kickoff event.

Sally Hartman, senior vice president for Riverside Health System and Strategic Initiatives, described this effort as “an exciting time for us.”

“I was at a meeting where John Costulis and Dave Bowles were presenting some of their findings from map routing across Virginia,” she said. “One of the things they kept saying was ‘we need a real-life use case.’ And I was sitting there thinking, ‘We have people we’re serving in rural locations and our team spends a lot of time behind the windshield, going to places just to deliver things.’ Or in case of Tangier, you have to wait for a ferry full enough to make a trip over there to deliver things, so maybe that’s a use case. And they jumped on it, and I’ve got to thank them for that.”

The use of drones also has the potential to benefit emergency personnel and first responders by improving response times, access and assessment of threats to public safety.

“The drone delivery project truly embodies our mission to ignite growth, talent and innovation at ODU, in our region and in the Commonwealth of Virginia,” Costulis said. “We’re excited to be part of revolutionizing transportation of critical medical supplies in rural and other areas for those who really need it and to provide emergency first responders with a safe way to better access and assess hazardous or crisis situations.”

The Eastern Shore collaboration is just the latest effort by VISA to help unlock the potential for autonomous systems throughout the region.

VISA recently played a key role setting up two port safety and security demonstration events.

In October, VISA partnered with VIPC and the Port of Virginia to conduct a successful demonstration of a port security and emergency response unmanned systems project at the Portsmouth Marine Terminal. That exercise illustrated how water, surface and aerial drones and other unmanned systems could transmit data using a single software platform during public safety and emergency response missions to enhance port security.

And in April, VISA and the Old Dominion University Sailing Center hosted a demonstration of an autonomous coastal monitor surface vessel from Tridentis, an engineering and logistics firm. David K. Jochum, the company’s CEO and founder, also discussed Tridentis’ bottom feeder hybrid autonomous unmanned/remote operated vehicle before an audience of local emergency responders and public safety personnel.

Bowles said two similar demo days are planned for in the coming months.

These efforts all support VISA’s ultimate mission.

“Our charter is to help grow the aerospace ecosystem, on the Shore and across Hampton Roads, in partnerships with industry, academia and local political organizations,” Bowles said.