The sprawling field hospital that springs up in rural southwest Virginia every summer has been called the largest health-care outreach operation of its kind.
This year, the event will host another first.
Unmanned aerial vehicles — drones — will deliver medicine to the Wise County Fairgrounds in part to study how the emerging technology could be used in humanitarian crises around the world.
Organizers expect the July 17 flights to the Remote Area Medical clinic to make history as the first federally approved package deliveries in the United States.
For years, drones used in military operations have been lambasted for unnecessarily killing civilians and desensitizing pilots to the loss of human life.
Pairing the technology with the feel-good RAM clinic — where residents of central Appalachia starved for health care often camp out for days for the chance to see a dentist or doctor — could cast drones in a new light.
Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) will be there to trumpet the cause.
“The governor keeps talking about the new Virginia economy,” said Karen R. Jackson, McAuliffe’s secretary of technology. “Unmanned systems is a part of that. Obviously drones have been used in the military for many, many years. But from a commercial standpoint, these have the opportunity to rewrite how we do the movement of goods.”
In addition to demystifying commercial drones and opening the door to economic development, supporters say the technology makes good sense in Wise County.
As executive director of the Health Wagon, Teresa Owens Gardner runs two stationary health-care clinics and a mobile unit that travels to remote locations. Once the clinics are in place, if she runs out of supplies, there’s no way to retrieve more from stockpiles that lie hours away.