WIESBADEN, Germany — GPS-guided parachutes soon could be dropping blood supplies to medics on the battlefield, cutting down the time life-saving medical supplies reach wounded troops.
The military already uses the technology to deliver food, water and ammunition to U.S. forces in remote parts of Afghanistan. Now, the Armed Services Blood Program is working with an Army research center to put blood and other medical supplies under the parachutes instead.
If testing goes as planned, the system could be up and running by January.
Troops needing blood on the battlefield usually have to be evacuated and transported to the nearest medical facility. But evacuation is not always possible when units are under fire or if the weather prevents an emergency vehicle from traveling.
That’s when the Global Position System-guided parachutes can be a lifesaver and allow a wounded servicemember to receive blood during the critical period following an injury, said Air Force Maj. David Lincoln, Armed Services Blood Program deputy director for operations.
“Instead of trying to extract the patient, we can drop a sustainment package to get them stabilized,” he said.
Typically, medevac teams try to get wounded troops to a military hospital within 60 minutes, the so-called “golden hour.” But last year, doctors told high-ranking military officials that it’s better to make sure patients who are wounded in battle zones get the best care possible, rather than simply be taken to the closest medical facility.
Using the Joint Precision Airdrop System — which uses special software to calculate wind data that is then passed along to GPS receivers located on the parachutes — troops can attach containers of blood to micro-lightweight parachutes that can hold up to 150 pounds. In addition to blood, other supplies such as electronic monitors, ventilators, and devices for brain injuries that can detect intracranial bleeding can be dropped into the combat zone. The packages will usually be loaded with O negative blood, because individuals with all blood types can receive it.
Lincoln said the system is especially important for Special Forces units that travel light and are often not close to a medical facility.
Currently, researchers are testing if the blood is affected by being dropped from an airplane. Navy Cmdr. Greg Cook, Joint Forces Command’s chief of Medical Concept Development, compared the package’s landing on the ground to that of “knocking something off your desk.”
“We compared the blood after it was dropped to standard analysis, (the drop) didn’t affect it any…the shelf-life would be the same as before it’s dropped,” Lincoln said.
Blood is able to be used up to 42 days after it’s collected from a donor.
Cook said the smart parachutes can be dropped by fixed wing, rotary wing and unmanned aerial vehicles.
“We’re designing these to be high-altitude delivery,” said Cook.
The GPS can be programmed for the parachute to land in an area the size of an average backyard, something Cook said is important, especially in the mountainous regions of Afghanistan.
“If I miss by several hundred feet, I could be on the other side of the valley,” he said.