Devils Lake is about 75 miles east of Grand Forks Air Force Base, the home of Grand Sky, which bills itself as “the first unmanned aerial systems (UAS) business and aviation park in the U.S.” Local officials have made it clear that the city wants to be involved with Grand Sky in some fashion as the park develops, and one area that may be on the horizon is the use of drones in the medical arena.

Devils Lake is about 75 miles east of Grand Forks Air Force Base, the home of Grand Sky, which bills itself as “the first unmanned aerial systems (UAS) business and aviation park in the U.S.” Local officials have made it clear that the city wants to be involved with Grand Sky in some fashion as the park develops, and one area that may be on the horizon is the use of drones in the medical arena.

The region currently benefits from Valley Med Flight and its rescue helicopter service, which transports those in dire need of medical attention to hospitals in Grand Forks and Fargo. But for areas in the region and around the state that are tough to reach in time to save lives, could an “ambulance drone” be another way to get medical care to people fast?

The Journal reached out to Valley Med Flight and was informed that the company has no plans to incorporate drones into their service anytime soon. But a recent report by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation indicates that ambulance drones could significantly reduce response times in rural areas.

According to the report, those who suffer cardiac arrest outside of a hospital setting have only a 10 percent chance of survival. Often that’s because first responders are unable to arrive in enough time to mitigate the effects of cardiac arrest before a person succumbs.

The CBC report refers to a study by Timothy Chan, a computer science engineer at the University of Toronto, who determined that using drones to deliver defibrillators remotely could reduce response times by half.

Tom Swoyer, president of Grand Sky Development Company, said in a recent interview that testing of drones for medical purposes is already underway in some parts of the country.

“There were tests done in Virginia where they were delivering medical supplies via drone to remote areas for rural delivery,” Swoyer said. “That ultimately will be an industry unto itself, delivery of critical care items - be it medicines, medical equipment, etc.”

However, the fact is that the incorporation of drone technology for civilian use is so new that not only are there severe regulatory hurdles to manage, but a general lack of infrastructure needed to make a range of drone uses feasible.

The presence of Grand Sky so close to Devils Lake mitigates the infrastructure issue, so the hope is that as the park develops, a wider range of companies move in and set their sights on expansion.

Kris Bevill, who does public relations for Grand Sky, said that the park puts North Dakota - and potentially Devils Lake - on the cutting edge of drone technology.

“We’re very fortunate that we are out in front of it,” Bevill said. “A lot of these technologies and regulations are just now coming out, so that’s another reason why some of this hasn’t already been implemented. It’s still so new that other parts of the country wish they could be this far along.”

Right now Grand Sky is dominated by two large defense corporations: Northrop Grumman and General Atomics, which both manufacture drones for military use that can take advantage of the Air Force base’s 12,651 foot runway. Swoyer wants to develop the park so that smaller companies that offer a range of services take advantage of the aviation park.

“Over time, we’ll start filling in with companies that fly smaller UAS and want to be around the engineers and operators of these larger aircraft, and I think you’ll start to see a synergy develop within that business park of like-minded UAS pilots, sensor operators, maintainers and developers,” Swoyer said.

Of course, a private company that is interested in providing drones for medical use would need to work with government at all levels in order to implement such an idea. The CBC report notes that the technology to pair a drone with a 911 operator exists now, but in the U.S., the FAA has yet to open up the skies fully for widespread unmanned aircraft use.

Those in the industry believe that widespread drone use for a range of applications, including in the medical field, is all but inevitable, and Swoyer says that his park is interested in building a partnership with Devils Lake as Grand Sky continues to develop.

“What I would hope that as the relationship between Devils Lake and Grand Sky continues to grow, that we can become a resource to help - not even on a paid basis - solve problems using this kind of technology,” Swoyer said. “We’re not trying to sell drones. We have a vested interest in Devils Lake using more unmanned aircraft for things that will benefit the community.”