The US Department of Defense is proposing design, development and possible demonstration of unmanned air vehicles optimised for aero-medical support and evacuation roles under a newly released Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) solicitation. 

The proposed research programme, jointly sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defence Deputy Under Secretary of Defense Science & Technology and the US Army, would aim at development of a UAV large enough to carry new-generation lightweight Life Support for Trauma and Transport (LSTAT) pods.

The proposed UAV would support US Army plans to embed medics in its small but highly mobile frontline combat teams to be fielded under the Future Combat Systems initiative. The system is also seen as having potential application with US Marine Corps expeditionary units.

According to solicitation documents, while the US military “has invested significant research funding in autonomous ground and aerial vehicles and has demonstrated some rudimentary combat medical resupply operations using UAVs in open terrain…significant research remains to be performed”.

The proposed programme would explore “adapting, integrating or developing new UAV team-member technologies sufficient to enable autonomous UAV take-off, landing and navigation in urban and wooded terrain, and collaboration and co-ordination between human combat medics and UAV team members to enable timely and safe delivery of critical medical supplies and equipment such as the LSTAT during the golden hour of combat casualty care”.

DARPA, the US Special Operations Command, and NASA have studied the use of UAVs in the aeromedical evacuation role previously, the solicitation says. However, “no existing prototypes are sufficiently large enough to carry adequate payloads of medical supplies and/or LSTAT systems”.

Similarly, no existing aeromedical UAV design is “sophisticated enough to negotiate urban or wooded terrain at low level or to self-select suitable landing zones sufficient for autonomous landing and take-off with only minimal human team member guidance”.

Technical challenges to the project will include development of systems capable of planning and executing approach and egress routes in wilderness and in urban environments “with or without preloaded maps or terrain models” in all weather conditions. The UAV will also have to be able to communicate human medical team members, be able to autonomously detect and avoid potential hazards and hostile situations, and be able to “plan and conduct recovery from errors or the unexpected”.

The LSTAT pod was originally developed under a DARPA research programme in the early 1990s. The California-based Integrated Medical Systems, which is partially owned by Northrop Grumman, acquired production rights to the system in 1994.

The standard LSTAT chassis is 2.2m (7.2ft) long and 0.58m wide and, unladen, weighs 77kg (170lb). An evolved lightweight version, designated the Critical Care System for Trauma and Transport (CSTAT), is now under development. The solicitation says that the target carriage capacity of the proposed UAV would be 227kg, comprising the LSTAT, a “worst case” soldier weighing of 136kg, and a weight safety margin

The solicitation says that operational fielding of LSTAT units in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq has shown that the system is “too heavy to be routinely carried by medics into battle”, but has proven itself to be “critical to life support during combat casualty stabilisation and evacuation”. Given the high mobility expected of FCS combat teams,  LSTAT type devices will require a “just-in-time delivery method”.

The proposed programme would be implemented in three stages, starting with conceptual work on “design of a UAV as a combat medic team member” and the development of this into an implementable technical systems design. In phase two, the programme would focus on demonstration of autonomous guidance and navigation capabilities in cluttered environments, autonomous selection of landing sites, human-UAV communications, and airborne carriage of medical supplies and LSTAT pods.

In the final phase, a prototype UAV system would be built and demonstrated based on phase II technologies. In turn, that system may then be used as the basis for the launch of a follow-on advanced technology demonstration programme.

The system could also have “significant” application in the civil emergency response  services sector, the solicitation says, once it is validated in both conceptual and technical terms. The solicitation closes 13 October.