$2 million grant to launch emergency drone program in Cambria County; rescuers soon could get medicine by air

The Tribune-Democrat, Johnstown, Pa. –  By Randy Griffith

A $2 million grant announced Thursday is the final piece needed to launch a program that will use airborne drones to bring drugs and other medical supplies to rescue scenes and help emergency responders save more lives, Cambria County leaders said.

Robert C. Hampshire, U.S. deputy assistant transportation secretary for research and technology, announced the Strengthening Mobility and Revolutionizing Transportation Grant during a program outside Richland Township Fire Department’s Solomon Run Station.

Robert C. Hampshire, chief science officer for the U.S. Department of Transportation, announces a $2 million grant to launch a drone network to assist emergency responders across Cambria County. The ceremony was held outside Richland Township Fire Department’s Solomon Run station.

The project today that we are announcing will really help to improve health care access and emergency medical service delivery in life-critical situations with support of using drone systems,” Hampshire said.

The $1,925,256 grant to the Southern Alleghenies Planning and Development Commission for its Emergency Life Saving through Multi-Modal Mobility Project is the result of months of work by a variety of local businesses, organizations and agencies, Cambria County Department of Emergency Services Executive Director Art Martynuska said at Thursday’s program.

“This is a team effort,” he said. “We look at the bigger picture beyond being able to save lives – which this project will do; we are confident in that. In the long term, this is workforce development; this is education; this is enhancing the economy of Cambria and Somerset counties and the nearby counties.”

The project will involve installing a network of radio sensors across Cambria County to direct the drones and prevent interference with other air traffic, Martynuska said. Those sensors exempt drones in the program from the Federal Aviation Administration’s line-of-sight rule, allowing the unmanned aircraft to fly out beyond the drone operator’s line of vision.

“The sensors are the key,” he said. “As long as the sensors can read you, you can fly.”

The idea is to send medicine, such as the opioid overdose-fighting drug Narcan, to emergency locations to speed help.

“This will allow life-saving medicine and devices to be delivered to people in need even before EMS can arrive,” Hampshire said. “The whole idea around this SMART Grant program is to use technology to create a safer, more equitable and efficient transportation system.”

If the emergency-response model is successful, the use of drones could expand to other industries and public services.

“We are looking to this area, this region, to really serve as a model here in Pennsylvania … that other places across the country can learn from these projects about drug delivery and medical services,” Hampshire said. “This is really ground zero here for learning about how this service works.”

Rockville, Maryland-based ATA LLC is working with the Cambria County Geographic Information Systems Department, John Murtha Johnstown- Cambria County Airport and the nonprofit Aerium to develop the sensor network.

If the network is successful, plans call to expand and connect with ATA-developed networks in Virginia and Ohio by the end of 2025, company Chief Technology Officer John Eberhardt said at Thursday’s event.

Calling Cambria County “the heart of Pennsylvania and the heart of the United States of America,” Eberhardt touted the significance of that larger network.

“We already have a delivered plan to link this system to efforts already underway in Virginia and northeast Ohio, which will make Cambria County the beating heart of the very first nationwide advanced aerial mobility system,” he said.

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