Skip to main content

Military Health System

Important Notice about Pharmacy Operations

Change Healthcare Cyberattack Impact on MHS Pharmacy Operations. Read the statement to learn more. 

How Drones Will Transform Battlefield Medicine – and Save Lives

Image of Drones carrying fresh blood products to wounded troops on the front lines may be critical for military medicine in a conflict against a "near-peer" adversary. Drones carrying fresh blood products to wounded troops on the front lines may be critical for military medicine in a conflict against a "near-peer" adversary. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Blood loss or “bleeding out” is the leading cause of preventable death on the battlefield, military health experts say.

So one of the best ways to save lives during combat operations is to provide blood products to forward deployed medics and corpsmen as soon as possible.

During the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, getting the needed blood products to injured warfighters was typically not a major challenge when the U.S. military controlled the skies and maintained a nearby network of medical facilities.

“We were pretty reliant on medevac 'dust off' to deliver our blood,” said Air Force Col. (Dr.) Stacy Shackelford, chief of the Joint Trauma System.

However, in future conflicts against a “near-peer” adversary, Shackelford said, that could be far more difficult. Injured troops may have to remain at the frontlines for days while needing blood transfusions or other major medical care.

The solution: Drones may become essential to combat medicine.

“I think it's going to come down to drone delivery of blood by some type of unmanned vehicle that can fly in and drop off more blood or more bullets, whatever is needed,” Shackelford said.

Resupply by Drones

“We think that drone resupply of blood and immediate-need medical products are really just around the corner,” said Dr. Adam Meledeo, a research scientist for coagulation and blood research at the U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research, Fort Sam Houston, San Antonio, Texas.

“There are multiple off-the-shelf solutions that are being considered,” and DHA is funding a number of other innovations to optimize the ability to provide drones in the battle space, Meledeo said.

Yet using drones to resupply blood and other medical supplies will be challenging.

“There’s obviously trade-offs between some of these different platforms, such as making sure that we have a vehicle that's fast, and somewhat stealthy…and has a very large battery that will be able to keep it airborne for a much longer period of time if it needs to loiter somewhere in anticipation of there being a problem,” Meledeo said.

“There's also been some talk of outfitting some of our combat hardware drones that are already in use with alternative payloads that would be able to supply blood, medical supplies and really just about anything, such as MRE’s, ammunition, and water” to frontline medics or service members caring for wounded soldiers, he explained.

Blood Resupply

“The primary issue with blood resupply is that it has to be maintained at specific temperatures, as do a number of pharmaceuticals including certain pain medications, and antibiotics,” Meledeo said.

“The biggest technological hurdles right now are being able to maintain those temperatures inside those drone payloads very consistently, at a variety of altitudes, and a variety of different ambient conditions for potentially lengthy periods of time, without drawing too much power away from the system itself.”

The Marines Corps used drones for resupply during an exercise in Australia. Drones have also been used in Rwanda and Uganda to transport medical supplies to rural areas across mountain ranges and in bad weather, Meledeo said.

“I think that we're going to get there much faster than we had initially anticipated,” he said.

The use of drones for future near-peer conflicts is starting to filter down into the operational forces as a potential solution in the near term, he noted.

Wounded Warrior Evacuation

“In the long term, there are a number of lines of effort, such as involving drones for the extraction of patients,” Meledeo said.

U.S. partner countries are examining some of these platforms that can evacuate a patient rapidly without risking other personnel in potentially contested airspace, he added.

How does one transport casualties stealthily?

“Part of it is marking the vehicles appropriately with standard medical nomenclature. That gives you the Geneva Convention protection. But, obviously, we go up against certain enemies that will not care about that at all,” he explained.

Artificial Intelligence

Stealth technology continues to improve. When it comes to drones, “it may be just a matter of keeping the drones low to the ground, and that they're being piloted by an artificial intelligence system,” Meledeo explained.

“So, hopefully, AI will be faster to react than a human would be. But even still, I think there are a lot of concerns about” the use of drones to extract wounded warfighters.

“The long-term goal…is to actually have some sort of robotics onboard these drones that would be doing medical care to the patient during transport,” he said.

DARPA AI Initiative

A new Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency initiative called “The In the Moment Program” aims to ultimately give AI systems the same complex, rapid decision-making capabilities as military medical staff and trauma surgeons who are in the field of battle based on algorithms of care and decision-making capabilities.

One example is smart tourniquets that will be able to detect whether they need to be released. Other automatically guided solutions include IV placement or catheter placement, Meledeo said.

“It sounds like science fiction. It is still a little bit science fiction, but it's not as far off as it may sound,” he said.

“At least on a rudimentary level, the community is already pursuing a lot of automated solutions or artificial intelligence-derived solutions for automation of different medical processes.”

This research is underway but there’s no timeline on this concept.

“Hopefully, we'll be able to get some confident results from some of these different technologies that are going to be packaged together in this system and enable the drones to then not only resupply at the point of injury, but also actually take care of the transportation and the management of patients during that transportation.”

You also may be interested in...

Article Around MHS
Feb 23, 2024

Medical Soldiers Compete in the Medical Readiness Command Europe 2024 Best Leader Competition

The 2nd Place of the 2024 Medical Readiness Command, Europe Best Leader Competition, held Feb 6-9 at Baumholder Training Area, Germany, are pictured with U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Roger Giraud, commander of Medical Readiness Command, Europe. The grueling four-day competition was rigorous, relevant, and realistic. Activities included a physical fitness assessment, M4 and M17 weapons zero and qualification, and a 12-mile foot march. (Photo by Kirk Frady)

More than 30 medical soldiers from across Europe competed in the 2024 Medical Readiness Command, Europe Best Leader competition, Feb. 6-9, at Baumholder Training Area in Germany. Teams from each of Medical Readiness Command, Europe’s four direct reporting units competed for a chance to represent the command at the 2024 U.S. Army Medical Command Best ...

Article Around MHS
Feb 20, 2024

Forward Deployable Preventative Medical Unit Enhances Combat Effectiveness with Comprehensive Weapons and Threat Recognition Training

Forward Deployable Preventative Medical Unit Six member trains in weapons proficiency during a specialized course designed to enhance readiness for diverse deployments on Feb. 8, 2024. The training was tailored for the unit’s unique mission to ensure service members are prepared for their upcoming deployments. (U.S. Navy photo by Desmond Martin)

The Forward Deployable Preventative Medical Unit participated in a first-ever weapons and threat recognition training course, specifically designed and tailored for the unit’s unique mission. FDPMU’s are rapidly deployable and mobile units that support force health protection around the globe.

Article Around MHS
Jan 16, 2024

Yokota Sustains 24/7 Air Medical Transport

U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Jeovany Vasquez, 374th Operational Support Squadron, UH-1N Huey instructor flight engineer surveys a landing zone during a patient transport drill. (Photo: U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Manuel G. Zamora)

The 459th Airlift Squadron performed a trial run of a new readiness posture for medical transport on Dec. 18, aiming to offer 24/7 airlift support, streamlining the patient transfers from the 374th Medical Group at Yokota Air Base, Japan, to other medical facilities in the region.

Article Around MHS
Jan 12, 2024

What Care at Sea Looks Like

U.S. Navy Chief Aviation Boatswain’s Mate Louis Mountain receives his flu shot from U.S. Navy Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class Stevie Shavers, from Ravenswood, W.Va., aboard the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, on Oct. 27, 2023. A ship’s medical department is vital to keeping the entire crew healthy and safe during deployments. (Photo by U.S. Navy Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Jahred Johnson)

A ship’s medical department is a complicated, interwoven group of people with different responsibilities dedicated to the health and well-being of the crew. Ranging from the ship’s nurse to the enlisted corpsman, everyone has a purpose and a mission to complete.

Article Around MHS
Sep 15, 2023

Health Affairs Secretary Visits San Diego Facilities Discusses Importance of Readiness Quality Health Care

SAN DIEGO (Sept. 14, 2023) Dr. Lester Martinez-Lopez, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs, is briefed on Naval Medical Center San Diego's (NMCSD) Bioskills and Simulation Training Center's (BSTC) capabilities by Capt. Cory Gaconnet, BSTC department head. The BSTC offers medical students, nurses, interns, residents and hospital clinical staff the opportunity to train in a virtual patient care environment using simulated patients and sophisticated technology. The center contains overhead cameras that tape the medical team's actions, so leaders can provide feedback after the simulated training. The BSTC plays a key role in maintaining patient safety and ensuring the operational readiness of all hospital staff. The mission of NMCSD is to prepare service members to deploy in support of operational forces, deliver high quality health care services and shape the future of military medicine through education, training and research. NMCSD employs more than 6,000 active-duty military personnel, civilians and contractors in southern California to provide patients with world-class care anytime, anywhere.  (Photo: Marcelo Calero)

The Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs, Dr. Lester Martinez-Lopez, visited the Defense Health Agency’s San Diego Market from Sept. 13-14, touring research and medical facilities and meeting with staff to discuss the unique challenges facing Southern California’s medical treatment facilities.

Article Around MHS
Aug 28, 2023

Army Reserve-led Mountain Medic Soars to New Heights

U.S. Army Reserve critical care flight paramedics from 5-159th General Support Aviation Battalion, 244th Expeditionary Combat Aviation Brigade, Army Reserve Aviation Command, guide U.S, Air Force Reserve medical personnel from the 302nd Airlift Wing in offloading a casualty from a HH-60 MEDEVAC Black Hawk during exercise Mountain Medic at Fort Carson, Colorado, on Aug. 14, 2023. Mountain Medic is an Army Reserve-led joint, multi-component, multi-domain aeromedical evacuation exercise geared at improving and reenforcing medical evacuation operations in a simulated large-scale combat operations environment. (U.S. Army Reserve Photo by Master Sgt. Joy Dulen)

The third iteration of the fast-paced joint operation known as Mountain Medic 2023 was conducted in August 2023. Against the backdrop of the Rocky Mountains, the exercise aimed at improving and reinforcing medical evacuation operations and skill sets while pushing its medics, pilots, and aircrews nonstop in austere environments set for large-scale ...

Article Around MHS
Aug 23, 2023

MHSRS 2023 Kicks Off with Powerful Message: Medical Readiness for the Future Fight

Team members from the U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Command's Medical Material Development Activity - Broad Spectrum Snakebite Antidote (BSSA) program, receive the Military Health System Research Symposium 2023 Outstanding Research Accomplishment award in team/program management in Kissimmee, Florida on August 14, 2023.  (Photo: Danae Johnson)

Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs Dr. Lester Martinez-López kicked off the 2023 Military Health System Research Symposium with a keynote speech on the morning of August 14, delivering powerful words to the more than 4,000 people attending the event. Weaving his heartfelt sentiments into an overall call for action, Martinez put the ...

Article Around MHS
Aug 17, 2023

Naval Medical Research & Development Researchers Participate in Undersea Operational Research Panel at MHSRS

Panel presenters for the Undersea Operational Research panel at the 2023 Military Health System Research Symposium

KISSIMMEE, Fla. – Medical researchers from the Naval Medical Research & Development (NMR&D) enterprise specializing in undersea health met for a panel during the 2023 Military Health System Research Symposium (MHRSR) on Aug.15.

Article Around MHS
Aug 10, 2023

U.S. Army Medical Materiel Development Activity Logisticians, Reserve Soldiers, Army Logistics Support Capstone Hospital Conversion Effort in Northern California’s High Desert

U.S. Army Reserve soldiers from across the 807th Medical Command inventory newly fielded medical equipment inside a storage warehouse at Sierra Army Depot, California, on July 19, 2023. Members of the U.S. Army Medical Materiel Development Activity, U.S. Army Medical Materiel Agency, and soldiers with the 807th MCDS began an inventory of medical supplies this week as part of a capstone field hospital conversion mission for eight Army Reserve medical commands belonging to the 801st Combat Support Hospital. (Photo: T. T. Parish/U.S. Army)

The U.S. Army Medical Materiel Development Activity, partnering with the Army Reserve’s 807th Medical Command, reached a milestone in its yearslong efforts to support U.S. Army Reserve medical commands last week, starting the final hospital conversion at the Sierra Army Depot in California.

Article Around MHS
Jul 24, 2023

Expeditionary Medical Facility Kilo Completes Readiness Exercise, Earns Deployment-Ready Status

Expeditionary Medical Facility Kilo successfully completed its Operational Readiness Evaluation in Camp Pendleton, California, June 14-21. Approximately 134 EMF Kilo personnel trained in setting up and operating a 50-bed, medical treatment facility. (Photo: U.S. Navy HM2 James Comick, Naval Expeditionary Medical Training Institute)

Expeditionary Medical Facility Kilo successfully completed its Operational Readiness Evaluation. The focus of the ORE held in Camp Pendleton, California was testing the command’s ability to stand up a fully functional field hospital, capable of operating when deployed at any location around the world.

Last Updated: July 11, 2023
Follow us on Instagram Follow us on LinkedIn Follow us on Facebook Follow us on X Follow us on YouTube Sign up on GovDelivery