The drone swoops in low over a wounded soldier on a future battlefield. The squad looks up to the sky with hope instead of fear at an object hovering overhead — the drone is here to deliver blood. A quick infusion in the field by the medic and the wounded soldier’s life is saved.

Drones already have changed warfare forever, but they have the potential to save lives, too, as a new test project from Pittsburgh’s Near Earth Autonomy has demonstrated. In collaboration with Florida-based L3Harris Technologies, the company has created a drone, the FVR-90, that is able to deliver blood and other medical supplies to soldiers hundreds of miles from a hospital, in virtually any terrain or conditions.

“This project allowed us to demonstrate the utility of autonomous, safe landing in complex, unstructured environments,” says Sanjiv Singh, CEO of Near Earth Autonomy.

The FVR-90, which has not yet been sold to the government, can take off and land vertically, with delicate payloads of eight to 22 pounds. It’s designed for extreme endurance and can spend up to 22 hours in the air. Depending on conditions on the ground, it can scan to find the safest place to either land or drop supplies.

The project was sponsored by the U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Command’s Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center.

“Near Earth and L3Harris have developed a compelling technical solution to a challenging problem,” says Nathan Fisher, chief of the medical robotic and autonomous systems division at the center. “Together, they have smartly integrated their aircraft autonomy and blood storage system with a capable [unmanned aircraft system], demonstrating the ability to support field care, when immediate patient evacuation is not possible, through long-range delivery and recovery of critical supplies without requiring any forward infrastructure.”

The drone scans for a safe place to land. Images courtesy of Near Earth Autonomy.

The successful demonstrations took place in August in Fort Pickett, Virginia. L3Harris built the drone and Near Earth Autonomy integrated its suite of autonomous flight systems and sensors.

In some scenarios, when the drone analyzed a landing area and couldn’t find a safe place to land, it dropped the blood from a low hover in a transport pod or via parachute. That gives the drone three different ways to deliver crucial supplies when every minute’s delay can be deadly.

Near Earth Autonomy has also recently partnered on a self-driving helicopter. The company is based in Rockwell Park — an ongoing redevelopment of the vast former Rockwell industrial complex in Point Breeze — and has been growing steadily by creating technology that lets aircraft take off, fly and land with or without GPS. In addition to military applications, Near Earth has developed drones that can do inspections — identifying unsafe bridges or power plants from the sky, for example.

In 2018, Near Earth won the Howard Hughes Memorial Award, which recognizes outstanding improvements in fundamental helicopter technology. In 2017, the company was a finalist for the Collier Trophy, one of the top aviation awards in the world.