Two people working on a drone in the grass.
Dr. Azita Amiri, left, associate professor in the College of Nursing at The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH), examines a drone payload module custom build by the UAH Rotorcraft Systems Engineering and Simulation Center. The Rotorcraft Center collaborated with the College of Nursing in its annual disaster simulation drill for the first time in the fall 2023 semester. Drones delivered supplies ordered by students and contributed a real-time video feed of the outdoor triage site and surrounding area to the incident command team inside the Nursing Building.
Ann Marie Martin | UAH

A small drone lands in the center of a square defined by four orange cones. Its blades stop spinning. Medical personnel approach and carefully remove the small box attached to its underside. They take the contents to a scene of controlled chaos where nurses are evaluating patients to determine the severity of their injuries.

That drone could have been transporting life-saving medication or supplies, but on this morning, it was playing a role for the first time in the annual disaster simulation drill conducted by The University of Alabama in Huntsville’s (UAH) College of Nursing. UAH is a part of The University of Alabama System.

The drill tests nursing students’ ability to handle real-world public health emergencies that might occur during a tornado or other severe weather event as well as accident-related situations such as exposure to chemical or hazardous wastes, power or gas main leaks, and management of communicable disease outbreaks, which may require quarantine.

Held in and around the UAH Nursing Building, the 2023 fall semester drill featured a hundred or so participants. Dozens of volunteers, including students from local high schools, dressed and applied makeup to portray disaster victims for the nursing students to treat. Police officers, even a K-9 cop, were on hand to add to the authenticity of the simulation.

Problems are planned into the program, including a kleptomaniac or two swiping supplies, patients raging out of control, and even people dying.

“That’s part of the disaster,” says Dr. Melissa Foster, clinical assistant professor and community health nursing course manager, College of Nursing. “There’s never enough of anything, never enough people, never enough supplies. The only thing there’s too many of is victims.”

“You want the students to feel a little overwhelmed when it’s still in a safe learning environment and it’s not going to hurt a patient,” says Dr. Kim Budisalich, clinical assistant professor and graduate simulation coordinator, College of Nursing.

Any health-care situation benefits from a timely response, and that’s especially true in an emergency. Drone technology can save time when it really counts. This is why Dr. Azita Amiri, associate professor, College of Nursing, is a strong advocate of using drones in health care to improve health equity and health care access.

“Incorporating emerging technologies, such as drones, offers a new perspective to our traditional teaching style,” Amiri says. “The students were captivated by the scenario and how it was integrated into a disaster simulation that has been successfully conducted for many years under the excellent supervision of our nursing faculty, Dr. Foster and Dr. Budisalich. I am grateful for all the faculty and staff involved, especially those two who stepped out of their comfort zone to revise the scenario and help us achieve our goal of incorporating advanced technology into nursing education.”

The UAH Rotorcraft Systems Engineering and Simulation Center (RSESC) collaborated with the College of Nursing to provide unmanned aircraft, custom-built payload module and flight operations. Along with delivering supplies ordered by students during the drill, the drones contributed a real-time video feed of the outdoor triage site and surrounding area to the incident command team located inside the Nursing Building.

This partnership “offers unique access to unmanned aerial systems (UAS) technology,” says Amiri, adding that she is not aware of another nursing/technology partnership of this type at any other university.

“It’s a good opportunity for nursing and engineering to work together,” says Casey Calamaio, operations lead and research engineer at UAH’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Research Programs, operating out of the Rotorcraft Center.

“This drill, in combination with other exercises at UAH over past three years, provides the opportunities to develop and demonstrate the unique capabilities of UAS in these disaster response scenarios and offers an excellent training environment to maintain community readiness,” he says. “This represents an emerging application for drone first responders, or DFR, to rapidly deliver lifesaving medical supplies and improve emergency situational awareness. It is important to train the next generation of technology-enabled nursing professionals in emerging tools at their disposal.”