In the not too distant future, the mother of a sick child in a remote African village may be grateful for experiments going on now at Joint Base Cape Cod.
A state official on Monday, June 2, described tests at the base involving civilian drones that eventually could carry customized payloads, such as several polio vaccines, to locations difficult to reach by ground vehicles.
The official, H. Carter Hunt Jr., vice president for defense sector initiatives at MassDevelopment, spoke at a forum at the Upper Cape Cod Regional Technical School in Bourne.
The forum was hosted by the state Military Asset and Security Strategy Task Force.
The task force, whose members include state Representative David Vieira (R-Falmouth), is exploring ways to expand public and private sector growth in and around the six military bases in Massachusetts, including Joint Base Cape Cod.
One line of business with a potentially large market is drone technology.
Mr. Hunt said Camp Edwards, which is used by the Army National Guard and accounts for the bulk of the land at the base, has the restricted air space needed to conduct drone tests.
On Monday, Mr. Hunt said the military has been conducting its own drone tests at the base. He said about 40 military drone tests have been conducted there so far.
The official said civilians now are seeking to adapt existing military drones and drone technology to their own uses.
Using current technology, Mr. Hunt said, drones can get where they need to go, whether coming down onto land or parachuting in their payload.
The hurdle is that the Federal Aviation Administration wants to ensure that any drone using open airspace can be detected by air traffic controllers on the ground and manned aircraft in the skies. The agency also wants to ensure that any given drone can be specifically identified as to its task and its payload.
Mr. Hunt said technology exists that will enable a drone to send out an identifying signal. But transmitting that signal takes power, as does traveling through the air to its destination. And the heavier the payload, the greater the need for power to propel the drone to where it is being sent.
So Mr. Hunt said researchers need to grapple with the conundrum of balancing the various needs, regulations and available materials and technology to achieve the best performance for a drone and its mission.
The air space above Camp Edwards, he said, gives them the opportunity to tweak and modify drones to meet regulatory and performance requirements.
But the official also said more drone uses are being envisioned, and funded, than plans to use the devices to deliver what are now mail-order items to street addresses.
Mr. Hunt said the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is helping fund research into drones that could deliver specific medical supply payloads from a central depot to remote villages on continents, such as Africa.
Road access, not to mention manned aircraft access, to many of these settlements can be difficult. But Mr. Hunt said a drone can deliver customized medical supply orders as needed to clinicians working in these villages.
On a less esoteric level, the task force anticipates that a land swap involving the rail spur into Joint Base Cape Cod and connecting to North Falmouth could pave the way for more uses involving the line.
Mr. Vieira said the military has swapped its ownership of the land under that rail spur for land next to Hanscom Air Force Base. The swap will allow Hanscom to improve its security.
The rail spur, meanwhile, would be transferred to the state Department of Transportation.
The spur had been used to transfer waste via rail from several Upper Cape towns to a waste-to-energy plant in Rochester. The waste transfer station had been located at the base, adjacent to the spur.
With towns now pursuing alternate waste disposal solutions, the way is open, Mr. Vieira said, to use the land at the end of the spur for other purposes, such as the storage of road salt and other commodities. The state representative said preliminary studies are starting into possible future uses for the line.